How to use five basic punctuation marks

Punctuation is hard. Even I find it hard, and I’ve been a professional writer for a long time. I know others find punctuation hard also, because I see mistakes all over the place, all the time.

This isn’t a big deal, in and of itself, despite what people who like to get contemptuous over this sort of thing will tell you. I don’t think it matters how you use punctuation, as long as people can understand what you’re trying to say. Written language is always evolving, and the rules will be very different 100 years from now from what they are today.

That said, punctuation matters in your job application materials and in your professional correspondence because misuse can cost you jobs and make you look less than professional. Here are some of the basic rules for five common punctuation marks.*

Period (.)

The period is used to indicate the end of a sentence. Like the one that I just ended. And this one (though there are those who would say it’s not a proper sentence). It’s also used after an abbreviation, (or abbrev.), unless the abbreviation comes at the end of a sentence, in which case one period will suffice.

When I was growing up I was also taught to use a period in initials, like E.B., or U.S.A., but this isn’t necessarily a rule anymore and it depends on which style guide you’re using. So, punctuate initials as you see fit, I guess.

You’re all probably pretty good at using periods. Give yourselves a hand.

Apostrophe (‘)

People are less good at this one.

Use an apostrophe to indicate possession, as in “That resume is Steve’s.” Or when using a conjunction, like “That’s Steve’s resume.” You do not use an apostrophe with a plural, as in “Those resume’s are Steve’s” or even when pluralizing initials, like “CV’s.”

Something I see commonly is “Do’s and Don’ts.” I’ve heard this is “acceptable” now. But it’s still technically wrong. Just FYI. I mean, do what you want. They’re your mistake’s, and as I said, it doesn’t matter to me.

Exclamation mark (!)

Exclamation marks, like their name indicates, are used to note excitement or surprise – to exclaim something. Like, “Oh my God! The resume self-destructed!”

These days, it seems like everyone is always excited all the time about everything!!! Because exclamation marks are so common!!! People are using them lately to indicate even the slightest amount of joy, and to reassure others that they are nothing less than super enthusiastic.

“Want to go to lunch with me?”

Because without the exclamation marks, the asker might think you’re not actually that enthusiastic about having lunch with them and start feeling insecure. People are weird. That’s fine. But don’t use them when delivering bad news, as I’ve seen people do, and keep them to a minimum in job application materials because they can make you look a little childish.

Comma (,)

Commas are crazy, and pretty much impossible to figure out. Plus, nobody really agrees on all their uses and these can be subjective. But here are a few main ones:

Use a comma when separating items on a list, such as a skills list that includes “communication, problem-solving, team building, critical thinking, and decision making.” (Note, however, that the last comma on that list is an Oxford comma and there are those who feel strongly that you should not use it. These people are wrong about everything and cannot be trusted. Don’t listen to them.)

Use a comma to separate independent clauses (complete thoughts that stand alone) when joined by a conjunction, and use a comma when separating a dependent clause (incomplete thought that doesn’t stand alone) from an independent clause (see what I did here?).

Use commas to separate a word or phrase from a sentence when that word or phrase doesn’t change the meaning of that sentence: “The interviewee, gesticulating wildly, told a crazy story.”

Use commas to separate the day, month, and year in a date. Use commas to separate someone’s name and title.

Use a comma when you should obviously use a comma, and when the lack of one would give the sentence a totally different meaning.

You know the famous example: “Let’s eat, grandma!” vs “Let’s eat grandma!”

You’re going to need more information about the comma. Find it here and here.

Em dash (—)

I love the em dash. You know why? Because I don’t always know how to properly use semicolons, colons, and freakin’ commas — the em dash can replace all these things! — It can also replace brackets.

Here are some uses of the em dash in place of colons, commas, and brackets.

Just some of my skills — team building, management, budgeting, increasing revenue.

When she finally got the offer — six months after the interview — she no longer wanted the job.

After she answered the questions in the online application form – all 150 of them – the system crashed and the work was lost.

When all else fails, I use the em dash.

I break the rules all the time. And that’s OK. You can too. There are just some basics to which you should stick when something is at stake, like a job. These are some of them.

*Note that there will be at least one egregious punctuation error in this article, as it is the rule of law that whenever someone writes about the rules of writing they will invariably make an ironic mistake.

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