Punctuation Basics - A Beginner's Guide

Doug Landsborough
October 14, 2021
April 20, 2023

The Beginner's Guide to Punctuation

When it comes to writing a book, we know it’s all about getting your story out there, sharing the incredible characters you’ve created, pursuing your passion, or building an incredible world. And while I personally love understanding the technical side of writing—sentence structures, formatting, narrative devices, and more—most people might find something like punctuation boring.

Unfortunately, the basics of punctuation are something you must learn if you want to be a writer.

Yes, you can have an editor swoop in after your book is done to tidy it up and polish it, but if you don’t understand the fundamentals of your craft then you will never get to the editing stage in the first place.

So, whether you just need a refresher on all the different types of punctuation or you have a burning question about one mark in particular, welcome to the Beginner’s Guide to Punctuation.

Periods - When & How to Use Them Properly

Let’s start off with the basics: periods. Periods (.) are used to terminate either a sentence or a sentence fragment.

A sentence, by definition, is an independent clause that contains both a subject and a verb. Basically, something (the subject/a noun) is performing an action (a verb), and the whole thing is neatly wrapped up with a period at the end—assuming another punctuation mark, like a question or exclamation mark, is not called for.

A sentence fragment, on the other hand, does not have one of those two key components. But since writers are artists, and all artists enjoy breaking the rules, sentence fragments are okay to use in moderation. These fragments can be incredibly short. For. Dramatic. Effect. Or longer, if you want.

The vast majority of sentences in your writing will end with a period. There are other options, which we will cover later, but a period is the norm.

It was a beautiful day for a party in the Kingdom of Camelot.

Commas - When & How to Use Them Properly

Commas (,) have a lot of uses. Not only that, but it seems like there is an exception for every rule—in addition to all of the misinformation that people think is correct. It is so easy to go rogue and start putting commas everywhere you want there to be the slightest of pauses, but the reality is that commas belong in very specific places.

Using commas in a list

The most widely known function of a comma is in a list. If you are listing a series of simple items, you can separate those items with commas.

While all writers use commas in lists, some use more than others. In your writing, unless you are following a specific style guide, you must choose whether or not to use the Oxford (or serial) comma. While we are fans of the Oxford comma here at Dabble, the choice is ultimately up to you.

For those who don’t know, an Oxford or serial comma is the comma that appears before the last item in a list to clarify the contents of the list. Compare the following two sentences, the first with an Oxford comma and the second without.

Lancelot was throwing a party and invited the strippers, King Arthur, and Merlin.

Lancelot was throwing a party and invited the strippers, King Arthur and Merlin.

By using an Oxford comma, we are making sure that the reader knows King Arthur and Merlin are not the strippers.

Using a comma after an introductory clause

Next up, a comma can be used to introduce an introductory clause—that is, the opening part of a sentence that lays out some additional information. The comma signifies that the main part of the sentence is about to begin.

Now that the workday was over, King Arthur could leave for the party.

Using a comma to connect two independent clauses

A comma can also be used to connect two independent clauses alongside a coordinating conjunction (aka FANBOYS). As we established earlier, an independent clause (also known as a sentence) is a combination of a subject and an action. Sometimes we put two independent clauses in one sentence, though, and we combine these with a conjunction like and, but, or, yet, and so on.

King Arthur was already on his horse to go to the party, but Merlin still wasn’t ready to go.

Using a comma to add extra information

Commas can also be used to include extra, yet useful, detail. These pieces of information, known as non-restrictive or non-essential, should be able to be removed and still have the sentence make sense.

Merlin’s staff, which was made of an ancient yew tree, was finely decorated with beautiful party streamers.

Using a comma to address someone

If a speaker or narrator is addressing someone directly and uses their name, a comma precedes or surrounds the name, depending on where it is in the sentence.

“What’s taking so long, Merlin?”

“Don’t rush a wizard, Arthur, and don’t rush perfection.”

Using a comma in dialogue

Finally, commas are used to combine dialogue with their associated dialogue tag. If the person who is speaking is identified (either by name or a pronoun) and they have an associated verb (said, yelled, whispered, etc.), a dialogue tag is created. Unless a question or exclamation mark is used, which we’ll discuss later in this article, a dialogue tag is connected to its associated speech with a comma.

“The party is starting soon,” King Arthur said, agitation creeping into his voice.Merlin looked at him and answered, “To quote a friend, ‘A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.’”

Semicolons - When & How to Use Them Properly

Semicolons (;) are one of the trickier pieces of punctuation that you’ll encounter. Most novice—and even some experienced—writers struggle with the proper use of this punctuation. Think of a semicolon as a connector, like a stronger comma. You can use semicolons in two different ways.

Using semicolons to connect independent clauses

The most common way of using this tricky mark is by connecting two independent clauses that are closely related. This can be useful in showing the importance of the second clause while maintaining a more effective pace, usually replacing a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.).King Arthur hated when Merlin quoted their wizard friends; it often just confused the young king more than anything.

Using semicolons in a list

Semicolons can also take the place of commas in a list. This is used when the items in a list are more complex than a couple words or contain punctuation themselves.

Merlin finally walked out of the castle with a wagon of party supplies: costumes from the wardrobe of William Shakespeare, who had yet to be born; cakes made by the elves from a nearby forest; and magical trinkets, many from the horde of Merlin’s old pet dragon.

Colons - When & How to Use Them Properly

A more straightforward version of the semicolon, the regular old colon (:) has three primary uses: starting a list, separating independent clauses, and emphasizing points.

Using a colon to start a list

A colon can signify the start of a list, preceding the items in that list. When creating a list with a colon, you want to ensure that it is only used when it doesn’t interrupt the flow of a sentence.

King Arthur remembered what he packed: Excalibur, his party shoes, and a gift for Lancelot.

Using a colon to connect independent clauses

Similar to a semicolon, a colon can connect two independent clauses where the second clause enhances the first. In this case, the colon isn’t replacing a conjunction but simply joining two related sentences.

Excalibur was great for parties: the sword’s blade reflected sunlight like a dizzying array of rainbows.

Using a colon for emphasis

Lastly, a colon can be used to emphasize the word(s) that come after it, making them punchier. This is helpful for driving home a point.But there was something new stopping the pair from leaving for the party: an ogre!

Question Marks - When & How To Use Them Properly

There’s no playing around with this one. Question marks (?) are used to … mark a question. Your sentence isn’t really a question without an associated question mark. So, if you want to ask something in your writing, end the sentence with this punctuation.

“Where did that ogre come from?”

Using question marks in dialogue

Question marks can also link dialogue with their associated dialogue tag, taking the place of a comma. Unlike most sentences that follow a question, you do not capitalize the dialogue tag that follows a question mark within dialogue unless it is a proper noun.

“I don’t know. Why don’t we ask it?” inquired Merlin.

Exclamation Marks - When & How to Use Them Properly

If you’re wondering what one of the most controversial pieces of punctuation is, allow me to introduce you to the exclamation mark (!).

Using exclamation marks for emphasis

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first: an exclamation mark is used to show an abundance of emotion or tone in the sentence it finishes.

Not only was it an ogre in front of the warrior and wizard, but the ogre had two heads!

Using exclamation marks in dialogue

Exclamation marks can be used in dialogue in conjunction with a dialogue tag. Just like a question mark, you do not capitalize the first word in the dialogue tag if it isn’t a proper noun.

“I’m not going to chat with a two-headed ogre!” shouted King Arthur.

Limit your use of exclamation marks

Now let’s talk less technical and more stylistic. As a writer, your style and tone are ultimately up to you. That being said, exclamation marks are often overused by newer writers.

Use this punctuation sparingly.

One of the best rules of writing is to show, not tell. Use an active voice, not a passive one. When you use an exclamation mark, you are essentially telling the reader how they should read or feel about what you wrote.

In professional writing, like in a book or short story, avoid using more than one exclamation mark (don’t do this!!) and don’t combine it with a question mark (because who really wants to read like this?! And, while not an exclamation mark, do you ever want to read a sentence like this???). Most of all, just don’t overdo it.

Apostrophes - When & How to Use Them Properly

The mighty apostrophe ('), for as small as it is, serves two important purposes. It is a punctuation mark that can take the place of another letter or letters, creating a contraction. It can also make a word more possessive than a clingy ex.

Using apostrophes in contractions

With contractions, the apostrophe combines two words by removing one or more letters from either or both words. There isn’t really much to memorize about this rule, since contractions are largely recognized words and, without the apostrophe, you’re just misspelling what you’re writing. Still, it’s important to understand why apostrophes are there in the first place.

King Arthur looked at the ogre again, but decided he didn’t want to—no, he couldn’t—waste anymore time. They were late enough already!

That’s enough,” Merlin muttered. “It’s time to go.”

Using apostrophes to make words possessive

Apostrophes are also able to make words possessive. This means another word belongs to or is related to the noun modified by the apostrophe. By adding an apostrophe and an s (-’s) to a word, you make it possessive.

Suddenly, Merlin’s staff hummed with power. A portal opened up between them and the ogre. Without hesitating, the pair ran through it, bringing Arthur’s horse and the wizard’s wagon of party supplies with them.

But what about words that end in s? That’s a question that stumps a lot of writers. If the noun you are modifying is plural (i.e. it represents more than one of the same type of thing), then you simply add an apostrophe without the extra s.

Stepping through the portal, the pair saw a row of warriors guarding the party. Or, rather, they saw the tips of the warriors’ swords.

Singular nouns, on the other hand, get the apostrophe and the accompanying s, even if they end in an s.

“Put your swords down.” Arthur recognized the princess’s voice even before he saw her. “There won’t be any swordplay at our party.”

It’s and its

One of the most confusing exceptions to the rules of apostrophes is the rule of it’s and its. In this case, you have two words that are nearly identical in appearance but with vastly different meanings. One is a contraction and the other is possessive, even though an apostrophe is supposed to do both of those things.

It’s is a contraction of it is. Just like other contractions, you are replacing a letter with the apostrophe and smooshing the two words into one.

Its, on the other hand, is the possessive form of it. Unlike every other word in the English language, a possessive it does not get an apostrophe. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way of remembering this; you just have to commit it to memory.

Speech Marks (Quotation Marks and Single Quotation Marks) - When & How to Use Them Properly

If you’re writing a book or any kind of story, it’s likely a safe bet that you’re going to have dialogue in it. We use two different speech marks to either indicate that somebody is speaking or to quote someone: quotation marks or single quotation marks.

Using quotation marks

Quotation marks (“ ”) are the two ticks that surround the words being said. This is to help show the reader that the words contained between the pair of quotation marks are not part of the overall narration but are instead spoken by a character.

“Thank you, milady,” Merlin said with a swift bow.

Using single quotation marks

Single quotation marks (‘ ’) are also used in dialogue, though for different reasons. If a character is quoting someone within their own dialogue, use a single quotation mark to surround what is being quoted.

“Funny, I remember her new husband saying ‘there will be plenty of swordplay’ when he sent me the invite,” Arthur murmured.

It is important to note that British English uses single quotation marks in place of the more commonly used quotation marks to indicate dialogue.

Hyphens, En-dashes, and Em-dashes - When & How to Use Them Properly

Even though they all look similar, hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes all serve different functions. There is a lot more to these horizontal lines than you might think, and it’s important to understand the difference.

Using hyphens

Hyphens (-) are used to combine two or more words into compound words. Compound nouns and verbs aren’t always hyphenated, as language changes over time, (i.e. commonplace used to be common-place). If you’re not sure whether a compound noun or verb should have a hyphen, Google it!

Hyphens also create compound adjectives, which do not often appear in a dictionary. These are subjective based on your style, but you can connect words with a hyphen to make it clear that they are acting as the descriptor and not a separate noun.

It had been more than twenty-five years since Arthur had seen his old friend. Back then, Lancelot had called him a good-for-nothing brat. Honestly, Arthur was surprised that he got an invite to the party at all.

It’s important to note that adverbs ending in -ly do not get hyphenated.

Using en-dashes

En-dashes (­­–) are slightly wider than hyphens and have a more technical purpose. With an en-dash, you will either be signifying a score, a range of numbers, or referencing a specific connection (including conflicts and directions). Here are some shortcuts available to put in a true en-dash character.

As Arthur and Merlin made their way up to the castle, they passed by the jousting tournament. The game was tradition now, taking the place of the human–fairy war that raged to the north­­–west. This year, they decided to host the tournament in Camelot, though the 576–577 season remained Arthur’s favorite.

Do not use an en-dash if a span of numbers is preceded by from or between.

Using em-dashes

Finally, an em-dash (—) is more similar to commas, colons, and semicolons than its hyphen and en-dash cousins. An em-dash, created in most word processors by typing two hyphens next to one another with a word on either side, is used to place more emphasis than their counterparts. If you want to include nonessential information and really draw attention to it, or if a sentence ends with a real punch, use an em-dash.

Arthur and Merlin approached the castle gate, taking in the banners that draped the walls. Streamers of red, green, and yellow—not to mention the ethereal, nearly transparent ones gifted by the fairies—blew gently in the wind.

As with most punctuation, it is best to use an em-dash in moderation. You should also avoid using more than two em-dashes in a single sentence or you risk confusing your reader.

Ellipses - When & How to Use Them Properly

For an author, ellipses (…) primarily serve to show hesitation or a trailing off of thoughts. Ellipses are formed by typing three periods in a row—not two, not four, not twenty—with a space at the beginning and end, according to most style guides. Some people omit one or both of the spaces surrounding the ellipses, but that is a stylistic choice. If you really want to tell the reader that someone is unsure, ellipses can help.

“Does he do you think Lancelot really wants me here?” Arthur asked his friend.

In professional communications—academic writing and journalism—ellipses can also be used within a quote to signify that a piece of the quote has been omitted.

Limit your use of ellipses

Be very careful with ellipses, though. Like exclamation marks, ellipses are a good example of telling your reader how they should feel instead of showing them. Newer writers tend to overuse ellipses to a point where their flow and pacing are weakened.

To improve the overall quality and readability of your writing, don’t overdo it with ellipses.

Slashes - When & How to Use Them Properly

In writing, a slash (/) is hardly ever used. In fact, the only time that it is common is in poetry, where a slash can indicate a line break. Elsewhere, it is usually just substituting a piece of punctuation for a word (or, and, per), which is discouraged in formal writing.

If you’re writing a book or story, it’s advised that you avoid the use of slashes.

Parentheses (or Brackets) - When & How to Use Them Properly

Similar to both commas and em-dashes, parentheses (or brackets) are punctuation marks that are used to provide extra information. Parentheses come with two extra rules, though. First, they always exist in pairs. Second, the surrounding sentence must still work grammatically if you remove the parentheses and the word or words within them.

When the parenthetical information (the stuff in the parentheses) comes at the end of the sentence, the terminating punctuation is placed outside of the closing bracket.

Merlin looked at the boy who became a king (and a good friend) and simply smiled. That was all Arthur needed to walk through the gates.

Whether you choose to use commas, em-dashes, or parentheses is ultimately up to you. Commas tend to be softer in terms of interrupting the pace and flow, while em-dashes tend to be more abrupt than brackets.

Square Brackets - When & How to Use Them Properly

When writing a book or story, it is very rare to see square brackets ([ ]). These brackets are more often used in academic writing or journalism to provide extra information. This can be a clarification, indicating errors or emphasis, noting translation or capitalization, and including a parenthetical within an already-existing set of parentheses.

In fiction, you might use square brackets to indicate that something has been redacted or censored in a document a character is reading, though this is a very specific case.

Just as the pair were walking into the castle courtyard, a falcon flew down and delivered a scroll to King Arthur. Unfurling the parchment, he read it aloud.

“Magical event spotted near Camelot. Most likely caused by [REDACTED].” Both Arthur and Merlin rolled their eyes. “Report at once.

”The party would have to wait.

There's Nothing Basic About Punctuation

There are many nuances to writing, and punctuation is no different. With different punctuation marks having multiple uses, some sharing a function, and others subject to stylistic choices, there is a lot to learn and remember.

But if you want to truly master your craft, to understand those nuances, you must understand the basics. Then, when you go to write your next story—whether that be your first story or not—you will be a stronger writer. Let this Beginner’s Guide to Punctuation help you write a better story, and be sure to bookmark it so you can come back whenever you have a question about punctuation.

Once you’ve gotten the hang of all these different rules, or have just brushed up on your punctuation prowess, start getting those words down! Write your next story with perfect punctuation in Dabble with a 14-day free trial. And if you're looking for some help on taking your storytelling to the next level, be sure to check out our blog and the discount that Dabble subscribers get to bestselling author Jessica Brody's Writing Mastery Academy.

Happy writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.