Some of this will be VERY simple. I’ve tried to throw in as many exceptions as I can think of:
PERIOD – Finishes a sentence. Be careful of the following situations: Place a period inside a quotation that comes at the end of a sentence e.g. He said “it is cold.” When giving quote citations, however, the period comes last, after the page number, e.g. Miller said “It is cold” (35). Also, use a period during an indirect question, which is actually just a statement – I wonder who won the contest, or with abbreviations, the F.B.I.
EXCLAMATION POINT – Indicates emotion. Never use these in your essay writing.
QUESTION MARK – No surprise – they indicate questions. They can arise in the middle of a sentence when the question is contained before the thought ends. EXAMPLE: Who is to blame? the media? the president? the public? Don’t forget to use these with sentences with embedded questions like, “Her gesture said who knows?”
COMMA – Gertrude Stein thought they should be banned from writing. You may agree, but you still need to know how they work. Commas are most often used in a series of items, or to clarify a sentence that either has modifiers (He wanted, with all his might, to win … Dave, a speedy sailor, won the race) or a sentence that starts with a modifier (Looking surprised, he opened the present). NOTE: Commas ALWAYS belong before quotation marks – “You look sad,” he said.
APOSTROPHE – Often used to indicate possession – this will be handled later because apostrophe misuse deserves an entire lesson. Also, in contractions and in poetry, the apostrophe indicates a missing letter or number (wasn’t, o’er). Finally, single apostrophes are used to indicate a quote within a quote. “He said he was ‘really angry’ with me.”
COLON – Most of the time, the colon indicates the beginning of a list. He likes several green foods: lettuce, guacamole, limes and old chicken. It is also used as an avoidable transition into a quote: “Try not to use colons this way.”
SEMICOLON – You know what it looks like ( ; ) but what does it do, other than make winky-face emoticons? 😉 It connects two sentences that COULD stand alone as independent sentences, but work well in a single sentence. “My son rarely sleeps well; he is afraid of the dark.” Semicolons also help sort out awkward lists: Doug traveled to Boston, Massachusetts; Paris, France; Italy; and Berlin, Germany. (He went to 4 destinations, not 7)
PARENTHESES / BRACKETS – Parentheses, despite what some of your teachers have taught you, DO NOT INDICATE words that SHOULD NOT BE READ. They are an extreme way of including extraneous material in a sentence. Mike (that bum) stole my book. Don’t use these in your writing (work to make the thoughts fit in better). Brackets in a quote show that the original wording has been altered for clarity’s sake or propriety. If an interviewee said, “They stole some crap from my pad,” the paper might quote him thus: “They stole some [items] from my [home].”
ELLIPSIS – The actual name for the triple dot used to indicate … a dramatic pause or a continuing list of words, phrases, sentences… It can also be used to cut out unnecessary parts of a quote: “I pledge allegiance to … The United States of America.”
AMPERSAND – It is this piece of work – &, which represents “and”. You may know it from Wheel of Fortune, but it should not be used in formal writing.
SOLIDUS / VERGULE – The actual name for the “slash”. Impress your friends the next time you verbally tell someone a website.