Jump to PUNCTUATION:
MATTERS OF STYLE
Apostrophes are used to indicate a missing letter in a word, such as in a contraction, or to show possession. Apostrophes may sometimes be an element of proper nouns, such as the name of a person or place.
In contractions, the apostrophe goes in the place of a missing letter or letters.
To show someone or something owns something. Most of the time, this means adding an apostrophe and the letter "s" after the person or item.
When names already end in "s," your choice depends on the situation.
Names that end with the "s" or "z" sound can be written as just adding the apostrophe or adding the apostrophe and the "s." While both are acceptable, be consistent in your usage throughout a document.
Names that end with a silent "s," "x," or "z" take apostrophe "s"
If the owner of the object is plural, look at the ending of the word. If it ends in s already, put the apostrophe after the "s."
If the plural form does not end in "s," add an apostrophe and an "s."
Some names will also include apostrophes. Generally, the letter after the apostrophe is capitalized. Follow the guidance of what you have seen in sources or what the person uses themselves for how to use them in your own documents.
Commas are used to separate information in sentences. They are used to separate clauses in compound and complex sentences. Commas are also included between items in a list, after introductory information, and to indicate nonessential information.
A compound sentence is a sentence where the two clauses (or complete ideas) could be grammatically correct sentences by themselves. A comma is used before the coordinating conjunction.
For more information about compound sentences, see the Sentence Types section below or view the following CSUSM Writing Center resource:
A complex sentence is a sentence where the two clauses (or complete ideas) could be grammatically correct sentences by themselves. A comma is used after the first clause if it starts with a subordinating conjuction.
Note that if we switch the clauses, a comma is no longer necessary.
For more information about complex sentences, see the Sentence Types section below or view the following CSUSM Writing Center resource:
In lists with three or more items, commas are used to separate the items. These items can be single words, phrases, or clauses.
There is debate about whether a comma before the last item--known as the Oxford or serial comma--is necessary. Different style guides and professors have different stances on this issue.
In general, the Oxford comma is necessary if excluding it would lead to confusion or change the meaning of the sentence. If you are interested in learning more about the Oxford comma, this article from Oxford Royale Academy explains how it is used and the controversy surrounding it.
Commas are placed between introductory words or phrases and the main part of the sentence. Introductory information can include longer prepositional phrases, phrases such as infinitive or gerund phrases, or transition words. The comma should also be used at times when leaving out the comma might confuse the reader.
For more detailed information on using commas with introductory information, visit the following resource:
Commas separate words, phrases, and clauses, from the rest of the sentence if that information is not nessary for the reader to understand the meaning of the sentence.
In the above example, the fact that the writer got their cat from the Humane Society is extra information. Excluding it does not change the main idea of the sentence.
In this second example, the clause who called yesterday is essential to the meaning. This information is necessary for the reader to know exactly which man the writer is referencing.
The most common usage of colons in academic writing is before lists, for emphasis, or before quotations and dialog. They also appear in how we note time and mathematical and scientific topics.
Colons can be used to indicate to the reader that a list will follow. It can take the place of phrases like "which are," "such as" or "as follows" in a sentence.
When using a colon, the thought should be complete if you placed a period instead of a colon. Do not place a colon after prepositions, words such as "for example" or "like," or verbs that need an object or complement such as "is" or "are." Consider the following example.
Because we have the word "are" in the sentence, we do not need the colon. We could either remove the colon or rewrite the sentence so that it would be grammatically complete before the example.
A colon can be used when sharing one idea that you want to emphasize. In this way, it works similarly to using a colon before a list.
Colons can be used in place of a signal phrase or comma when introducing a quote.
Colons can also be used in dialog between the name of the person speaking and their words. Note that in this case, quotation marks are not ncessary.
Colons are used between hours, minutes, and/or seconds when denoting the time of day or a duration of time.
Colons can be used to indicate a ratio.
Colons can also be used when introducing an equation in an academic paper.
Quotations indicate to a reader when you have taken the exact words of someone else from a source.
Quotation marks should go around any information you have taken from the original source.
Punctuation such as commas or periods usually go inside the quotation marks.
If you omit words in the quote, be sure to use ellipsis (...) to indicate missing words. If the words you omit include the removal of punctuation, use a terminal ellipsis (....) to indicate you have combined sentences. Remember that when eliminating words, you should not change the author's or speaker's original meaning. For more information about how to properly use an ellipsis in a quote, see this blog post from the APA Style Blog.
In the body paragraphs of academic work, quotes need to be introduced to the reader.
Block quotes are longer quotes from a source that you include in your paper. The rules for how long a quote needs to be to qualify as a block quote vary by field and citation style. Block quotes are formatted without the use of quotation marks and instead use indentation to show when the quote begins and ends.
For more assistance with block quotes in different citation styles, here are a few resources:
If you are sharing a quote from a source, and that source is already quoting information, the quotation marks need to be formatted in a certain way to signal this to the reader. "Double quotes" go around the information from the source you are reading, and 'single quotes' go around the information they had quoted.
Consider this example from The Punctuation Guide:
Single quotes should also be used around titles that would normally use double quotes when included inside of a quotation, as in this next example from The Grammar Book.
Outside of longer quotes you may be using in your paper, quotation marks can also be used when referring to a specific word or letter, providing translations for non-English words, emphasizing a word or phrase (often sarcastically) through a scare quote, or sharing a nickname.
When talking about a specific word or letter in a sentence, use quotation marks around the word or letter.
When sharing a non-English word and its translation in English, place the translation in quotation marks.
Scare or sneer quotes are placed around a word or phrase to show sarcasm or to use the word or phrase as a euphemism.
Consider this example from The Punctuation Guide:
Use quotation marks when sharing someone's official or legal name and their nickname or stage name. Usually, their legal first name is listed first, followed by their nickname.
CSUSM Writing Center Quotations Handout (PDF)
Purdue OWL How to Use Quotation Marks (web)
Purdue OWL Quotation Marks Extended Guide (web)
Education First Quotation Marks Guide (web)
The Punctuation Guide: Quotation Marks (web)
Semicolons are primarily used in compound sentences, but they can also be used to separate items in complicated lists.
A semicolon can be used in a compound sentence if the two sentences you are joining are closely related thoughts. It can be thought of as replacing a comma and the word "and" in the sentence. Below are 3 ways to write the same ideas.
While commas are generally used to separate items in a list, sometimes the list contains a lot of details or phrases with commas within more than one of the items. In that case, semicolons can be used in place of commas after each item.
The parts of speech are elements of a sentence that include articles, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, interjections, prepositions, and conjunctions.
Word order in English is important because the way words are arranged can affect the meaning of a sentence. Word order is crucial within the overall sentence structure. It also impacts particular parts of speech such as adjectives and adverbs.
In English, sentences are organized in this order: Subject – Verb – Object. The subject is usually a noun or pronoun, the verb is an action or state of being, and the object is one or more words that are acted upon by the verb.
Adjectives come in front of the noun they are describing.
Adjectives can also be used after be verbs when describing the subject of the sentence.
If you are using multiple adjectives to describe one object, they must appear in a certain order. That order is:
In English, it is important that sentences have noun-pronoun agreement and subject-verb agreement.
Verbs in English also need to agree with the subject in number. In the example below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.
Be careful when there are phrases that come between the subject and the verb in a sentence. In the example below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.
There are 4 main types of sentences in English: simple, comound, complex, and compound-complex. These are composed of one or more independent clauses and sometimes dependent clauses.
An independent clause is a complete thought on its own; it consists of a subject, verb, and any other information necessary for the idea to be complete on its own. A dependent clause consists of a subject and verb, but it needs help from an independent clause to complete the idea for the reader or listener. A dependent clause will start with a subordinating conjuction. For more help with subordinating conjuctions, see this article from eslgrammar.org.
Simple sentences have only one independent clause and include a subject, verb, and sometimes an object and modifier.
Simple sentences are not always short. They can have many words but still meet the requirements of a simple sentence. In the example below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.
The sentence above is a simple sentence because it is one complete thought. We do not see any new subjects after the verbs.
Compound sentences have at least two independent clauses that are combined with a semicolon or a comma and coordinating conjunction between them. We can use the acronym FANBOYS to remember the seven coordinating conjuctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. In the examples below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.
Complex sentences have at least one dependent and one independent clause. In the examples below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.
The first part of this sentence is an independent clause because we could put a period after "homework" and still understand the complete thought. The second part of this sentence is a dependent clause; starting with the subordinating conjucntion "although," we need more information from an independent clause to understand the whole thought. Note that when a subordinating conjuction is in the middle of a setence, we do not need to place a comma in front of it.
This second example has the same meaning as the first, but the clauses have been flipped. Since we started the sentence with the dependent clause, we place a comma at the end to signal to the reader that the independent clause is coming next.
Compound-complex sentences have two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses. It gets its name because it contains elements from both compound and complex sentences. In the examples below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.
Some of the most common mistakes in writing when it comes to sentence structure are fragments, run-on sentences (also known as comma splaces or fused sentences), and misplaced and dangling modifiers.
Sentence fragments are sentences that cannot stand on their own because they are missing a subject and/or a predicate. A sentence fragment is not a complete thought. While we might use sentence fragments while speaking or when writing informally, we should try to avoid fragments in academic writing. Fragments can be corrected by adding the missing information.
A run-on sentence occurs when a compound sentence is not properly punctuated. The two main types of run-on sentences are comma splices and fused sentences.
A comma splice is when two or more independent clauses are placed together with only a comma. This can be fixed by adding a coordinating conjunction after the comma, replacing the comma with a semicolon, separating the sentence into two or more sentences, or turning one of the independent clauses into a dependent clause.
A fused sentence is when two or more independent clauses are placed together without a semicolon, comma, or coordinating conjunction. This can be fixed by separating the independent clauses with a semicolon, adding a comma and coordinating conjunction, completely separating the sentence, or making one of the independent clauses a dependent clause.
Run-ons can be corrected in multiple ways:
Solution 3 (Separate the sentence): The nice lady offered to pay for their drinks. They insisted to pay for hers instead.
Solution 4 (Add a subordinating conjuction to one of the clauses): Since the nice lady offered to pay for their drinks, they insisted to pay for hers instead.
A modifier is a describing word such as an adjective or adverb that comes before another word. A dangling modifier is when a modifier is misplaced within a sentence and either describes the wrong word or does not make sense.
Parallel structure is a type of form that helps readers understand the likeness of content. Parallel structure is done by using the same form and structure in sentences that are closely related.
Ending a sentence with a preposition is grammatically correct; however, it is uncommon in formal writing. The only time it is not grammatically correct to end a sentence with a preposition is if there is information missing from the sentence. Ask your instructor if this type of sentence is appropriate for the writing in their course.
Coordinating conjunctions are typically used to connect ideas within a sentence. While it is not grammatically incorrect to use them at the start of a sentence, it is uncommon in formal writing. Instructors' preferences on this may vary. Often, a transitional word or phrase with a similar meaning can be used instead.
Academic writing often takes a more formal tone that our everyday language. The sections below share more information about how to have an academic or formal tone in your writing.
In academic writing, use language that shows medium certainty in claims you are making. Words showing medium certainty include:
Try to avoid words such as "must," "always," or "never" in your claims.
Voice can refer to your personal writing "tone," but it also refers to first, second, or third person in your writing.
Academic writing that is not a reflection or autobiographical typically uses third person. However, as style guides are updated, first person is becoming more acceptable in scientific writing where the researchers are reporting on their experients or findings. Second person is still often avoided unless it is necessary for clarity. Check with your instructor about their prefences for assignments in their course.
Academic language should be as free from bias as possible. Some tips to help remove bias in your writing include:
When speaking about groups of people, it is important to use respectful language. In both formal and informal interactions, People First Language should be used when talking about a person with a disability. This means saying "adults with disabilities" instead of "disabled adults." For more information and examples of people first language, see this webpage from the District of Columbia Office of Disabiity Rights.
If you speak another language at home, are an international student, or started learning English once you began school in the United States, you may be concerned about your grammar and vocabulary. The Writing Center wants to support you on your academic journey! We believe that the vocabulary choices you make in your paper are your choice, and we support you in those decisions. However, if you need extra support in understanding the rules of academic English, our tutors are happy to guide you. Check out one of our webinars, attend a one-on-one tutoring appointment, or for additional support, consider applying for Ongoing Support.