Advanced punctuation tips

If you’re reading this, you probably know a thing or two about punctuation. But nobody — including punctuation book authors (ahem) — knows it all.

So here are some advanced punctuation tips for good punctuators who want to get even better.

A single quote mark followed by a double quote mark comes after a period or comma. Let’s say you’re quoting someone who’s talking about a specific word, so you put the quotation in regular quote marks and the word itself in singles, like this: “Stop saying ‘whatever.’” The rule that says periods and commas go inside quotation marks applies to single quotation marks, too. The order is period, single quote mark, double quote mark.

An apostrophe comes before a period or comma. Apostrophes look a lot like single quotation marks. Depending on the font, they can be indistinguishable. But they’re different. An apostrophe can represent an omitted letter: thinkin’, talkin’, sleepin’, etc. And unlike a single quote mark that would come after each of those commas, an apostrophe is part of the word. That’s why the apostrophe goes before a period or comma, even when it’s within a quotation: “He’s sleepin’.”

An em dash can have a space on either side, or not. Different publishing guides have different rules for whether you put spaces around a dash — like this, or not—like this. Either way is fine.

If you can rearrange the order of adjectives, they require commas between them. Why are there commas in “a red, purple, yellow and green shirt” but none in “a bright red Hawaiian shirt”? It’s because the adjectives in the first example all have the same relationship with the noun. You can swap the order and it doesn’t affect the meaning: a yellow, purple, green and red shirt. But in our second example, some adjectives are more closely related to the noun than others, so you can’t move them around. “A Hawaiian, red, bright shirt” just doesn’t mean the same thing.

Read more tips in my recent column.

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