Punctuation — a refresher on five finicky rules

by May 4, 2016

When I first learned we devote the first business communication class to punctuation and grammar at the UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA program where I teach, I worried these finicky rules might be potentially dry. However, I’ve learned to love punctuation and here’s why: Mastering these rules really ups your game as a writer. Let’s look at some trickier rules to help you move from very good to great.

The Semicolon

Often, the rules behind this small punctuation evade many writers during deadline crunch. These three short rules should help:

  • Use a semicolon to relate two closely related independent clauses — meaning, a complete sentence. Apply this rule when connecting ideas without any linking words, or with conjunctive adverbs such as moreover, therefore or otherwise. An example follows: North Carolina experienced record rain over Easter break; however, strawberry harvest remains bountiful, NC State officials say.
  • Use semicolons to separate a series when the items are long or when individual segments contain material that also must be set off by commas, per the AP Stylebook. For example, he is survived by a son, John Smith, of Chicago; three daughters, Jane Smith, of Kansas, Mary Smith, of Denver, and Susan, of Boston; and a sister of Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • Place semicolons outside quotation marks.

The Parentheses

Quoting the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University, parentheses help set off important ideas not central to your topic, as an aside, or to complete a clarifying idea. But where to punctuate these guys? Three small rules follow:

  • The sentence should remain valid (and correct) even if you removed the parentheses.
  • When a fragment in parentheses ends a sentence, put the period, question mark or exclamation mark outside the last parentheses (at least, try to).
  • If the inserted idea is a complete sentence in itself, the punctuation remains inside. For example, Could that business go under (really)? And, that new venture could really outstrip its competitors. (It really could!)

Quotation Marks

Whether to place commas or periods inside or outside quotation marks depends on whether you live in the UK or the states. Rule of thumb in this country: commas and periods always go within quotation marks.

Emphasis Techniques

If the emphasis is part of the person’s quote, then that punctuation remains within the quotation marks. If you interview a business owner who says, “I won’t vote for any of the candidates. Are you kidding me?” the question mark remains within. Note too: a question mark and exclamation mark replaces a period at the end of a sentence.

Commas

So many rules exist for commas, but let’s look at some of the trickier ones for business writing, courtesy of the AP stylebook.

  • Use commas to separate adjectives equal in rank. For example, a dark, stormy sky; a leafy, gorgeous neighborhood.
  • But don’t use a comma when the last adjective before a noun outranks the one before. For example, a real estate salesperson.
  • Insert a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series. For instance, I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.
  • Use commas after introductory clauses or phrases, but you can omit them after short introductory phrases, provided no confusion results. For example: During the concert he heard rapturous applause.
  • Use a comma to introduce a complete one sentence quotation within a paragraph. For instance, John Smith said, “I’ve never had such a bumper year for business. What recession?”
  • Avoid commas at the start of an indirect or partial quotation: Smith reports new clients are “coming in from all over.”
  • Use a comma instead of a period when the attribution immediately follows the end of a quote. “I’m looking to retire soon,” Smith said.

Debbi G McCullough writes and edits for several organizations including Guardian News and Media’s Guardian Sustainable Business, Guardian Labs and Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio. She also teaches business communication part-time at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is a UN Foundation press fellow 2016.