The Importance of Punctuation

Written by on December 14, 2016 in blog with 0 Comments

The Importance of Punctuation

Parentheses ( ) —and when to use them.

I’m guessing most of you know the way to use parentheses, but you might be surprised at some of the rules, especially the ones about how to punctuate them. Let’s take a look. The importance of punctuation is…well, important.

I know what you’re thinking—my editor takes care of issues like this. (You do have an editor, don’t you?) If you don’t use an editor, run out and get one—now! Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

Anyway, regardless of whether you do or don’t have an editor, you should know how to use punctuation—at least the basics, as you’ll be doing plenty of writing where you won’t use an editor—blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc., It would be nice if you appeared to be professional in all situations.


The spelling of the word ‘parentheses’ is the first thing to look at. Parentheses (with an ‘e’ at the end) is plural, and it’s almost always used that way. This is different from ellipsis and ellipses, which has singular and plural forms and is often used either way. With parentheses you almost never see the singular form—parenthesis. (Perhaps because there are two parentheses, hence the plural form.) Good grammar emphasizes the importance of punctuation.

The Importance of Punctuation Use

Parentheses are used to indicate side remarks or provide additional information, as in the following example.

“My black van (the one with the wheelchair ramp) has a handicap license plate.”

As you can see, the parentheses statement clarifies which van I’m speaking of. Also to note, if you removed the parentheses, the sentence still makes sense—My black van has a handicap license plate. Everyone would understand what you’re talking about.


Punctuation of parentheses is more complicated. The common usage is to place the punctuation inside the parentheses if it’s a complete sentence.

Example—I wondered where to take her to eat dinner. (Should I get Chinese food?) I decided I should just ask her.

If the parentheses end the sentence, place the punctuation outside.

Example—He went north at the fork in the road (though he could have gone south).
If the words inside the parentheses do not form a complete sentence, then place the punctuation outside the parentheses.

Example—He came to a fork in the road and wondered (which way to go)?

Commas almost always follow the parentheses also.

Example—He came to a fork in the road (checked his map), then decided to head north.

importance of punctuation
Crossing guard directing traffic


Thoughts Inside the Parentheses

One thing before we go further—whatever thought is within the parentheses should not be a primary part of the sentence. In other words, the sentence should stand alone. You should be able to remove the words inside the parenthesis and have the sentence still make sense (presuming it made sense before).

Other things to place inside parentheses:
the numbers of numbered lists, such as, bring these items to the interview (1) a resume (2) a portfolio, showing your design work, and (3) a list of references.

If you’ll notice, the numbers 1, 2, and 3 are inside parentheses.

  • Area codes for phone numbers.

We don’t think much about this now as most smart phones and contact management lists format this automatically.

  • Time zones, which are often cited in emails or other correspondence when arranging interviews.

Example—the flight leaves at 6:00 PM (EST).

  • To indicate a person’s birth or death, as in, John Lennon (10/9/1940–12/8/1980), was a British (Liverpool) citizen and member of the rock band, the Beatles.
  • To explain the meaning of, or clarify, an abbreviation or acronym, as in, John Smith, the CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) was just promoted again. You might also do the reverse. John Smith, the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) was just promoted again. It’s only necessary to do this the first time you cite it. The rest of the time, the parentheses are not necessary.


You might go through life and never have need of brackets, but then again, you might not. If you do need them it would be great to know how to use them.

Example—I told Rose, who we had lunch with, and she said, “Tom said he would introduce us to Bob [his brother], since he and I had never met.” I used brackets because if I used parentheses, someone might think that was part of the quote from Tom.

Or to enclose the word “sic” or to make some other comment. America was discovered by Columbus in 1592 [sic].

That let’s us know that the original article said 1592, and it was not a mistake that we made. The [Sic] comment indicates we know it’s wrong, but we’re quoting exactly.

You would also use brackets if you need to use parentheses inside of parentheses, which isn’t allowed. In that rare case, use parentheses first, then for the second clarifying thought, use brackets.

When would this happen? Suppose the president was meeting with the presidents of two other countries, and further suppose that you were retelling the incident. You might say, ’The President (Barack Obama [America’s first black president]) met with the presidents of Egypt and Greece today.


I feel safe in saying that unless you’re a physicist, mathematician, chemist, or someone of that ilk, you will probably never use a brace, unless you’re playing around.

The only reason to use a brace—that I know of—is to enclose the third level of a nested equation, when parentheses and brackets have already been used for the first two So, as I stated earlier, unless you’re working in one of those aforementioned fields, you probably won’t run into braces.

Since starting this post, I have found a few other examples of when braces might be used, albeit, they are not that common.

Examples for use of braces:

  • Number set: {2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12} The set of numbers for this problem.
  • To list equal choices. Order your favorite ice cream {chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry} and an appropriate cone.

Although I saw some similar things listed as examples, I have never seen braces used this way in real life.

Em Dashes, En Dashes, and Hyphens

Once you realize the importance of punctuation, you’ll realize that this isn’t rocket science, but I thought I’d use a post I wrote regarding how, and when, to use the different dashes. It should clarify what to do and when.

What Is an Em Dash and How Do I Use It?

In order to understand an em dash, it’s important to put it into perspective. That means we need to explore a few details on hyphens and en dashes. The following are definitions from CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style).


The hyphen connects two things that are intimately related, usually words that function together as a single concept or work together as a joint modifier (e.g., tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds).

En dash

The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September issue of a magazine; it’s not a May-September issue, because June, July, and August are also ostensibly included in this range. And in fact ‘en dashes’ specify any kind of range, which is why they properly appear in indexes when a range of pages is cited (e.g., 147–48). [You should use ‘en dashes’ to separate the dates on your resume.]

Em dash

The em dash allows, in a manner similar to parentheses, an additional thought to be added within a sentence by sort of breaking away from that sentence.

Em dashes also substitute for something missing.

Also, the em dash may serve as a sort of bullet point.

The Most Common Uses of an Em Dash

For clarification, here are a few real-life examples of the three primary functions of an em dash.

  • . To take the place of a colon, but with more punch.
    • Carla hated three things—deception, falsehoods, and lies.
  • To offset a parenthetical phrase or thought.
    • No matter what happened—good, bad, or indifferent—in Uncle Dominic’s house it was cause to put espresso on the stove.
  • To indicate an interruption in dialogue.
    • “I’m through talking,” he said. “The next time—”
    • “There won’t be a ‘next time,’” she said, and slammed the door.

Bottom Line on Hyphens, En Dashes and Em Dashes

  • A hyphen would be used to connect compound modifiers on a resume, such as “hands-on manager,” or “high-volume manufacturing.”
  • An en dash would be used to connect the dates on a resume, such as “2003–Present.”
  • An em dash might be used in a cover letter, such as this one. “As general manager—and temporary vice president of sales—drove profits to record levels.”

Note: In all instances, you don’t use spaces on
either side of the dashes (Some style books disagree.), but whatever you decide, keep it consistent—either use a space or don’t use a space, but be consistent.

Technical Details

  • To make a hyphen (-), press the hyphen key on the keyboard.
  • To make an en dash (–), press “option-” (⌥) on a Mac or, if using a PC, press “control (⌃) and minus sign on the numeric keypad.”
  • To make an em dash (—), press “option/shift-” (⌥/⇧ ) on a Mac or on a PC, press “control/alt (⌃/⌥) and minus sign on the numeric keypad.”

Incorrectly Labeling Times

In almost any form of business writing, or for that matter, any form of writing, you will find it necessary to list a time, or times, in the communication. Here is the proper way to do it.

The interviews will be conducted between 8:00 and 4:00. You would not say the interviews will be conducted between 8:00–4:00.

If you use the words between or from then there is no hyphen. If you do not use those words, then a hyphen is not only fine, but required.

Example—The interviews will be conducted 8:00–4:00.

This is a rule that isn’t followed often, but it is a rule. If you want to look as if you know your grammar, stick to the examples.


Some people swear that the dreaded semicolon is a monster, and that it has no place in the modern world. I disagree. I think the semicolon has a few specific purposes and they benefit us all.

Below is a post I wrote about semicolons.

I’m Afraid of ;;;;;;

importance of punctuation importance of punctuation. it's like a traffic system

It’s okay for writers to play with grammar. You don’t have to write in complete sentences. Not all the time. Readers know what you mean because that’s the way many people think.


Writers can put periods damn near anywhere. Well. Ma.ybe.

As the preceding example shows, you can’t get away with putting periods after every word, and certainly not in the middle of a word, but choppy sentences in a novel are fine. Really. They are. You can even mess up with commas, and em dashes, or misplace the punctuation inside of the parentheses. Readers will assume you are taking liberties as a writer, and they won’t worry about it.

Where you run into trouble is when you start messing with punctuation that most people don’t know about. Or they only know enough to be dangerous. What am I talking about?

The Dreaded Semicolon

The semicolon is so feared that even editors are afraid of it. I recently had a writer tell me her editors steered her clear of the use of semicolons, going so far as to suggest that one per book might be too many. And Kurt Vonnegut was no friend of the semicolon. This is what Vonnegut had to say:

“…Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

I’m not sure about the “transvestite hermaphrodites,” but I’m pretty sure that was not a glowing endorsement.

So Why All This Talk About Semicolons?

I’m here to defend them. I’ve taken out my sword and drawn a line in the sand; I’ve had enough. Semicolons are magnificent little creatures that get no respect. Semicolons are like snakes; people fear them, so they kill them.

I’m of a different mind. I believe semicolons add a special flavor to a well-constructed sentence, a subtlety that a period cannot accomplish. A well-placed semicolon is precious—like a stolen kiss from secret lovers.

When You Should Use a ;

The most common use for a semicolon is to connect two closely related sentences. Think of semicolons like bridges. Imagine Manhattan if there were no bridges connecting it to New Jersey, or Brooklyn, or Queens, or the Bronx. That would make New York an entirely different place. Or suppose San Francisco had no bridge across the bay to Oakland. It wouldn’t be thought of as San Francisco/Oakland anymore. It would just be San Francisco. And Oakland.

That’s just one of the jobs a semicolon does; it connects two closely related clauses/sentences and brings them closer. Here are some examples:

  • I can’t eat past midnight tonight; I have to fast for a blood test tomorrow.
  • I’m not working in the garden today; I saw a copperhead there this morning.
  • Bob drove 90 mph on his way to the hospital; his daughter’s life depended on it.

In each of the examples above, there is a close relationship between the clauses, a relationship that couldn’t be served by a comma, and wouldn’t be served by a period.

Other Uses

Another common use for semicolons is to clarify and separate a list. In my book, Murder Takes Time, there are four main characters: Nicky Fusco, the hit man; Frankie Donovan, the cop; Angela Catrino, the love interest; and Tony Sannullo, the mob guy.

Let’s look at that sentence if we used only commas.

In my book, Murder Takes Time, there are four main characters: Nicky Fusco, the hit man, Frankie Donovan, the cop, Angela Catrino, the love interest, and Tony Sannullo, the mob guy.

The second example, using all commas, is confusing. Using semicolons clarifies the meaning.

What You Don’t Do With Semicolons

A semicolon should not be used in place of a colon. It’s not a good substitute, and, despite it’s name association, it doesn’t want to be a colon. Semicolons are perfectly content doing the job they were meant to do.

A semicolon should not join two unrelated clauses.

Fear of Semicolons

I don’t know why people are afraid. Look! ;;;;;;; They’re not frightening; in fact, they’re kind of cute. And it’s very easy to recognize not only what a semicolon is, but what it’s function is. It is made up of a comma and a period. The period is on top, so your first inclination is to stop—as if it were a period—but then you see the comma and continue. It couldn’t be simpler. If you want to cast blame at the confusion surrounding semicolons, throw stones at the people who named it semicolon; it would have been better with a name like “periomma,” or “commeriod.”

The Bottom Line

Rise up, people! We’ve got to take a stand; the poor semicolon can’t survive without us. And let’s be honest—if we let the semicolon die, what will be next? The colon? The parentheses? Brackets? Pretty soon we’ll be left with commas, periods, and question marks. Some people might like that, but not me; I love my semicolons.

Exclamation Points

An exclamation point is similar to a jalapeño—one or two is fine, but—too many are…well, too many.

There was even an episode of “Seinfeld”, where Elaine—who worked at a publishing company—was editing a book and there was a big argument over the use of exclamation points.

The bottom line is, they are used for extreme emphasis, and they lose all effect if used too often. Exclamation points, by their nature, also denote surprise, anxiety, fright, etc., So there is no need to state that when in dialogue. I often see things such as, “Call the police!” he yelled, or shouted, or screamed. The use of the exclamation point already tells us that he uttered it excitedly. There’s no need to tell us again.


These are just a few examples of the importance of punctuation when it’s done properly. When punctuation is done the right way, it makes it easier to read—more comfortable—and when it’s done the wrong way, it’s like a traffic system that’s broken. Imagine if you were driving to work and the traffic signals were all broken, or the stop and yield signs had been knocked down. It would be a mess, wouldn’t it? It might end up like this image of a traffic jam shows.

Traffic jam

The same goes for punctuation. When punctuation is out of place, or used improperly, it interferes with the reading process, and sends the wrong signals.


The difference between

‘Let’s eat, grandpa.’


‘Let’s eat grandpa.’

is just one lowly comma, but the end result might be disastrous.

If you want more tips on publishing, writing, and other things, such as the dreaded semicolon, sign up for our mailing list. You’ll be notified whenever a new blog is published.

This post is a modified excerpt from my book, No Mistakes Grammar, Volume III, which will be out in a few months.

If you enjoyed this post, please share.

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. See the complete list here

He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”

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About the Author

About the Author: Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends. .

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