Basic Punctuation Usage Everyone Should Know

Good punctuation can make a document. Likewise, poor punctuation can completely lose everything you are trying to say. It is important in any type of writing, especially business writing, to use proper punctuation in order to produce effective communication. Without using correct punctuation, the entire meaning of what you are trying to say can be unclear. For example, writing without proper punctuation may look like this:

Please send the forms we need today because we are moving on to new purchases and will be phasing out the old ones therefore we need to use up those as quickly as possible.

In that example, not using proper punctuation created a run-on sentence that is hard to follow and looks unprofessional. Properly punctuated, that sentence would look like this:

Please send the forms we need today because we are moving on to new purchases and will be phasing out the old ones; therefore, we need to use up the old forms as quickly as possible.

This article goes over some of the most important punctuation rules that you will need to be aware of when doing any business writing. Some of them you may be more familiar with, others may be new to you. All of them will be beneficial to review, learn, and master for effective business writing.

So just what is punctuation?

When you look at your document, it is essentially everything that is not a letter. It includes the commas, dashes, apostrophes, colons, semicolons, question marks, and hyphens, among other things. If we just had a document filled with letters that make up words and did not have these other symbols in there, it would be a very confusing document to read. When people first started writing way back in historical times, they did not use all the punctuation that we use today.

Using Commas

As you have already learned, it is better to keep comma use to a minimum. A long sentence with many commas can be confusing. Using commas correctly, text becomes easier to read and comprehend. Commas are one area that people often have trouble with because they tend to use too many or too few and have a hard time deciphering how many are just the right amount. Once you get used to where commas are often used, it will become easier to avoid incorrect usage. Here are a few ways that commas are used:

  • After introductory clauses: These are sentence openers to the main idea, often beginning with the words "although," "before," "since," "though," "until," etc. An example: Until the kids clean their room, there will be no dessert for anyone.
  • Following introductory phrases: These are similar to introductory clauses, but they are not complete clauses. An example would be: Until the kids clean, there will be no dessert for anyone.
  • After introductory words: Some transition words, including "however," "furthermore," and "meanwhile," are followed by a comma. An example: However, she simply won't take the garbage out anymore.
  • After distinct pauses: If you read a sentence to yourself and you feel there should be a pause, it is most likely a good place for a comma.
  • Following each item in a series, except for the last one: She went to the store to get tacks, pins, paper, calculators, and shoes.
  • To set off a clause in the middle of a sentence: She wore a red dress, despite her feelings against it, to the ball last Friday night.
  • When writing geographical names, dates, places, etc.: She lives at 235 West Palm Ave., Deland, Fla. Her birthday is January 23, 1981.
  • To switch from a main sentence to a quotation: She said, "Please sit in your seat."
  • To avoid confusion in a sentence: To cats, dogs are overbearing.

So when should you not use commas? You should never use them to separate a subject and verb.

The Apostrophe

The apostrophe may be a small mark, but it can make a big impact. You should always use one to show noun possession, letter omissions, and lowercase letter plurality. Examples showing possession include:

James's car

Mother-in-law's living quarters

Lisa and Linda's project

The kid's movies

Examples showing letter omission include:






Example showing lowercase plurality:

She was always told to mind her p's and q's.

Using Hyphens

Hyphens are used to bring words together and make them compound. There are several specific conditions when they are used, including to join together two or more words that are serving as one adjective right before a noun, with compound numbers, to avoid confusion, and with some prefixes.

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Some examples of joining words together before a noun include:

She is a well-known seamstress.

He loves chocolate-covered raisins.

They drove to the destination at break-neck speed.

Examples using a hyphen with compound numbers include:



Example to avoid confusion:

She will re-sign the document before leaving. Without the hyphen, there would be a word that could be confused with "resign," which has a different meaning.

Examples for using hyphens with prefixes:





This is an area that most people are familiar with because they do it so often. However, there can sometimes be confusion about what should be capitalized and what should not. Items that should always be capitalized include:

  • the first word that starts every sentence;
  • the pronoun "I";
  • all proper nouns, such as West Palm Beach, Miami, Regional Science Center, etc.;
  • proper names of all people and places;
  • the first word of a direct quote;
  • all major words when writing out the title of a song, book, article, etc.;
  • business titles: Is the title capitalized when it comes before the name, or is it capitalized if it comes after the name? This is an area that often confuses people. Most of the time, people want to capitalize all position titles automatically. However, titles should not be capitalized if they follow the person's name. For example:

"He left the house early," said John Dean, associate director.

"He left the house early," said Associate Director John Dean.

We invited Louis Sanches, the mayor of Denbrook.

We invited Denbrook Mayor Louis Sanches.

"President" should only be capitalized if you are specifically referring to a president of the country or if you are writing about the president of the country and the title precedes his or her name.

  • Names of directions when used as parts of the country but not in giving directions. For example:

They thought the Southwest was the most beautiful area of the country.

Just turn north on that road and you will be fine.

  • All days of the week and formal holidays.

Colon and Semicolon

Colons usually are considered quite easy to use. Most people can grasp the colon because the usage rules are pretty straightforward and this punctuation mark is not used that often. A colon usually introduces something. It might introduce a word, thought, or phrase; but its job is usually to introduce something to the reader. For example:

Lisa wanted to talk about one thing: baking cookies.

Lesley daydreamed all day about the same topic: massages and spas.

Marco claims to have only three friends in the world: the cat, the dog, and the remote control.

The semicolon is used to connect two sentences together. Using a semicolon can help you avoid a comma splice. For example:

She wanted to bake the chocolate cookies; chocolate is her favorite flavor.

Using the Dash

The dash is not used that often, but there are times when it can be an effective punctuation mark. Dashes are used to group words together in the middle or near the end of a sentence. They often are used where commas would be used to offset information or make it stand out, but the dash is chosen instead because you desire to place more emphasis on the information between dashes. For example:

Laura Langly – the most trusted person in the office – is going to be getting a promotion.

Usually we can see the economic reports, so we know what direction the company is going in – but today we can't.

Other punctuation areas that you should keep in mind:

Exclamation Point! This mark should be used when you really want to express something that is very exciting, a yell, or strong feelings. Those people who are fans of the television show Seinfeld will recall that one whole episode centered on one of the characters using the exclamation point. You really have to be sure that you want such emphasis placed on a sentence when opting to use one.

Brackets. There are four different kinds of brackets that one can choose from, including the parentheses ( ), square ones [ ], curly or brace ones { }, and angles or chevrons < >. They are used in business writing to add supplemental information. For example:

She is going to go downtown (she hasn't left yet) but needs directions.

Period. The period should be used at the end of every sentence if you are not using another punctuation mark, such as a question mark. It also is used in abbreviations, especially in those for titles, such as Dr. Linton. It also is common to use periods when writing out acronyms and initials.

Did you know?

Years ago, before people used the personal computer to type their business letters, they were using the typewriter. To make it easier to read, people were taught to hit the spacebar twice after a period at the end of a sentence. Doing so made the text more spread out and easier to read. Today, that is not necessary because computers do a better job of creating text that is easy to read with only one space between sentences. Some people still opt for two spaces between each sentence, but it is no longer necessary to do so.

You can read the position on this at The Chicago Manual of Style Online at:

Most formatting styles agree that in today's technical age it is not necessary to have two spaces after a period or the end of the sentence. Now, if you are still using a typewriter for some reason, you may want to continue to do so until you are using a personal computer.

There is much to learn about punctuation and business writing overall. Once you master the mechanics of good writing, it will be a breeze to create effective, aesthetically appealing, and professional documents each and every time. Most of these grammar rules are probably review to you, as they have been covered somewhere throughout your past school experience. Like anything else, however, if you do not use them you tend to lose them, or at least forget much of it. Brushing up on punctuation skills will provide benefits that can last for many years to come.

You may be thinking that you will never remember all this information. The good news is that you do not have to. There are many resources available to you with just the click of a mouse. You should never be afraid to look up the information if you have a question. Once you do this a couple of times, you will most likely not need to do it anymore because you will become familiar with the topic and know it well.
There are always things to learn, research to conduct, and reviews to go over. The following are some resources you can use, both online and off, that can help you in all your business writing needs. You do not necessarily have to remember every one of the business writing rules that have been discussed. However, knowing where to learn more and get questions answered is essential. Once you know how to do that, you will be able to write anything.


Key items you can keep in your office to assist with business writing questions you may have include:

  • dictionary;
  • thesaurus;
  • books on business writing;
  • business writing examples.
It is a good idea to build a file of business writing examples. If you receive business documents or letters that you particularly like because of the style, format, or for another reason, make a copy to stick in your example file. Then when you are trying to visualize something you would like to create, refer back to your file and pull out examples. This will help spark ideas, as well as give you a reference base to follow when creating your new piece of work. Just be cautious about not copying the actual words, which would be plagiarism, or stealing someone else's work and claiming it as your own. You can use the overall idea, format, layout, and even some of the structural ideas, but avoid copying anything word for word. On Your Computer

There are some resources on your computer that can help you with your business writing efforts. Most computer programs, and especially those for word processing, have tools to assist you with writing letters, memorandums, and other documents. When you are in the program and need help, you usually can go up to the "help" tab and click to get the help box to come up. From there you can type in what you have a question about and the system will offer some suggestions. This is helpful if you are unsure how to do things, such as format your document or set your margins. Additionally, programs usually have templates, which are predeveloped generic slates that you can use to create your own letters, memos and faxes. By choosing a template in the computer program, you simply need to fill in your information and save it as you go along.

Once you start typing a letter in the program, the software often will give you suggestions, such as salutations. This can assist you in your letter writing process. Always be sure to take advantage of the spell-check tool to go over your work and see if there is anything you agree that should be changed at the program's suggestion. Most programs also have a thesaurus readily available. This is handy when you are seeing a repetition of words. Simply select the word that you would like to replace and click on "thesaurus" to see other suggested words that can replace it.

Another good tool on the computer is to click on the print preview button to see what your work looks like before printing it. This will give you a good idea of how it will look and if you should make adjustments to the margins or in other areas.
Be sure to save all your work frequently while you are creating a document. If you wait until the end, you risk losing it if there were a power disruption or something happened to the computer and it shut off. Ideally getting into the habit of hitting the save button after each paragraph is recommended. If something happened to the computer, then at the most you would need to only do the last paragraph over, rather than an entire document. Save your work frequently.

Online Tools

The Internet has a wide variety of tools that you can use to help with business writing. Just doing a search for "business writing" will net a lot of helpful responses. It would be helpful to write these links down, or print the page out, and when you have time visit each link to see what it offers. Once you find a few that seem to be especially helpful to you, just bookmark them or add them to your favorites. Then when you have questions, you can refer back to the page easily, without having to search for it again. Below are some sites that are particularly helpful in answering questions and getting more information for each topic area.