Rules of Punctuation: The Period, Question Mark & Exclamation Point
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Rules of Punctuation: The Period, Question Mark & Exclamation Point

Learn the proper use of end points such as the period, exclamation point, and question mark. Examples also include sentence structure, comma splice, and sentence fusion.

This article is a continuation of a series which will eventually cover all the necessary rules of punctuation.  So far, I have addressed the need for punctuation and also the rules governing the use of the comma.  In this article, I will discuss the period and other end points such as the question mark and exclamation point.  In upcoming articles, a few of the more obscure rules and less frequently used punctuation marks will be covered.  So relax; today our lesson is a cakewalk!

Even Shakespeare had to start at the beginning, right?  (photo credit)

Learning how to use end points is essentially a lesson in learning how to construct proper sentences.  We all know that a sentence usually ends in a period, and occasionally it ends with a question mark, an exclamation point, or ellipses (addressed in a later series). These marks show the conclusion of a whole, developed idea, complete with a subject and a predicate.  

THE PERIOD, AS USED TO END A SENTENCE

An example of a simple (as opposed to complex or compound) sentence can be produced with only two words: 

 "I am."  or,  "We won."  "We" is the subject, and "won" is the predicate; also, "we" is a noun (more specifically, it's a pronoun), and "won" is a verb.

This example is extremely basic and easy to understand.  When sentences are lengthy and contain a combination of other grammatical elements, it can be more challenging to punctuate it properly.  Following, you'll find an example of a run-on, or fused, sentence, and three options of how to add punctuation to correct the sentence.

Incorrect:  "We won the hockey game with only 3 seconds remaining on the clock the fans went absolutely wild."

Correct:  

Split into two sentences:  "We won the hockey game with only 3 seconds remaining on the clock.  The fans went absolutely wild."

With a comma and coordinating conjunction added:  "We won the hockey game with only 3 seconds remaining on the clock, and the fans went absolutely wild."

Preceded with an adverb, and a comma used to indicate the end of the first clause (making it an adverb clause):  "When we won the hockey game with only 3 seconds remaining on the clock, the fans went absolutely wild."

Note that you cannot simply add a comma after the word "clock", as this would be considered a comma splice.  If, in your writing, you still struggle with parts of speech, sentence structure, fused sentences and frequent comma splices, it would be well worth your time to get a writer's handbook (or other reference book) and review these things frequently.  And finally, a period at the end of a sentence should be followed by two spaces, not one.

THE PERIOD, AS USED IN ABBREVIATIONS

It is necessary to use a period after any title preceding or following a person's name: Mr., Mrs., Dr., Jr., Sr.  Also use a period after these abbreviations:  A.D., B.C., vs., etc., et al., and in Imperial measurements such as tsp., Tbsp., ft., in.

If an abbreviation needing a period also happens to fall at the end of a sentence, do not add a second period:

"Jane went to university to become an R.N."

Not all abbreviations require a period.  The modern postal system is a good example: TX, NJ, KY (Texas, New Jersey, Kentucky) or AB, BC, ON (Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario).  It is acceptable to abbreviate USA with or without period marks.  Other examples of when periods are not required are in directions (NNE, SSW, NW, SE); AM/FM, MVP, MD; clipped or shortened forms, as in premed, lab, 12th; and some uncapitalized abbreviations, such as mpg, km/h, ppm, rpm, mm, cm.  When in doubt, check in a current dictionary.

THE QUESTION MARK

Use a question mark after a direct question, but not after indirect questions.

Direct question:  Would you like to go for a walk?

Indirect question:  He asked if I would like to go for a walk.

Take note of the punctuation in the following sentences:

Direct question within a direct question:  Did you hear him ask, "Would you like to go for a walk?" [Use one question mark inside the quotation marks.]

Declarative sentence containing a direct question:  "Who would like to go for a walk?" he asked. [No comma follows the question mark.]

Used internally as part of a series:  Did he go for a walk? a jog? a run? 

Finally, a question mark in parentheses is used to denote the writer's uncertainty regarding the preceding word, figure, or date:

Chaucer was born in 1340 (?) and died in 1400.

THE EXCLAMATION POINT 

The exclamation point should be used sparingly to express disbelief, surprise, or strong emotion.  Do not use it for mild imperatives or expressions.  The following examples will illustrate this point:

Use it here:  It's raining cats and dogs!  or,   Watch out!   or,   He was spittin' mad!

Don't use it here:  It's very wet outside.   or,   Be careful driving.    or,    I could see he was angry.

Use it, or not, depending on the context:  I don't really care.  vs., I don't really care!    or, 

             Well isn't that something. (dry humour)   vs.,   Well!  Isn't that something?

My best advice regarding these rules of punctuation is to write first, look at what you've written and analyze it, and then make the changes needed for clarity, correctness, and interest.  To make this point clearer I will refer back to the first three examples of separating a fused sentence.  While I have given three examples to fix the problem and all are correct, the third example is more emphatic and interesting. 

Language can be fun, and becoming an experienced word smith who excels at one's craft can be very fulfilling.  Try it.  Use something new to you, or take the extra ten minutes to double and triple proof-read.  You don't need to obsess and spend hours upon hours of editing.  Just tweak it.  You'll be glad.

Copyright by Sharla Smith; October 2010

Text used as my resource is the Harbrace College Handbook for Canadian Writers, Fourth Edition,1994, Harcourt Brace; pp. 3, 197-199.

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Comments (9)

Good to know the rules, even if it's impractical to use them!

Sharla, you're my hero. Voted and Facebooked.

Thanks for reading James and Ileen, and for your comments, also.

It's good to have a review of their uses, something we learned way back in grade school but sometimes we forget the correct usage of-

As usual Sharla, great work! With a slightly different emphasis - my understanding is that English and Russian are the only two languages with "I" used as a Personal Pronoun - can you confirm if that is correct, as, when analyzing Handwriting it is important for me, technically, to have that "I" included in a sample.

Thank you very much, Colin. Yes, you are correct that "I" is a personal pronoun (its also a proper noun). Also, I can confirm that "I" in Russian translates to "I" in English. I can see the significance this would have in handwriting analysis.

I think we should have some of your points plastered on billboards across the country for those who aren't exactly grammatically inclined.

Interesting and very useful to hobby writers!

Thanks so much for your comment, Ann. And Mary Beth - sorry I missed your very astute observation when you posted!

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