A-Z Index

Punctuation Guidelines

Ampersand (&)

Spell out and in most instances. Reserve the ampersand for use as a design element in charts and other places where space is at a premium. Use if this mark is part of a company's name: Maryville's A&G Restaurant.

Apostrophe (')

To form the possessive of singular nouns add 's. To form the possessive of both plural and singular nouns ending in "s" add only the apostrophe.


Linda's Bearcat softball jersey is green.

The Bearcats' football jerseys are green.

Dr. Stevens' freshman composition syllabus is available online.

The Stevenses' new minivan is Bearcat green.

We graded the children's writing assignments at the lab school.

The genitive case (indicating a possessor or source) requires an apostrophe or the word "of."


He still needs 36 hours' credit to graduate.

The seminar is worth one hour's credit.

She earned 15 hours of credit this semester.

Dr. Davis has 20 years' experience teaching political science.

Dr. Davis has 20 years of experience teaching political science.

Attributive nouns (those acting as adjectives modifying a following noun) aren't usually possessive: Deans Council, Department of Veterans Affairs.

It's is the contraction for "it is" or "it has" and not the possessive form.

It's been a very cold February.

The fraternity held its annual philanthropy event.

Boldface, italics, etc.

As with any special type style pr font, punctuation follows the style of the word immediately preceding it.


Place the colon outside quotation marks or parentheses. If a quoted passage happens to end with a colon, drop the colon. Here are some other guidelines and examples:

  1. Use a colon to introduce explanatory or other related matter. Leave one space after the colon, and do not capitalize the first word of the explanatory clause.
    • "The rules are quite clear: students are not allowed to park in faculty/staff lots until after 5 p.m."
  2. Use a colon to introduce quotations.
    • Rising to the podium, the president addressed the group of legislators: "It is clear that Congress must take some sort of action in order to resolve these issues."
  3. Use a colon to introduce a list or series.
    • "Northwest hosts a number of multicultural events each year: the ISO Banquet, the Ploghoft Diversity Lectures, the Feast of Cultures and the Northwest Powwow."
    • Don't use a colon if the list is an object or complement of any part of the sentence.
    • "Multicultural events taking place at Northwest this year included the ISO Banquet, the Ploghoft Diversity Lectures, the Feast of Cultures and the Northwest Powwow."
  4. Use a colon after constructions such as "as follows" and "the following" only if the list or illustrating matter immediately follows.
    • Incorrect: The assignments are as follows. Note that the deadline is next Friday:
    • Correct: The assignments are as follows: (List goes here.)
  5. The colon can be used to indicate a shift in tone or a grammatical break. Although correct grammatically, such constructions are often ambiguous. Try using a dash (−) instead.
    • "There is no longer any doubt: smoking is a serious health risk."
    • "There is no longer any doubt − smoking is a serious health risk."


Commas are probably the most frequently used - and misused - mark of punctuation. "When in doubt, leave the comma out" is a good rule of thumb, but here are some specific rules and guidelines.

  1. Like periods, commas always go inside quotes.
  2. Use commas to separate three or more items in a series. Do not use a comma before the conjunction (if any) that joins the last two items: "The president sent an e-mail to all deans, directors and department heads."
  3. If the items in a series contain internal punctuation (including commas) or are very long or complex, use semicolons to separate them: "The committee consists of the following members: Martin Levenson, vice president for university marketing and communication; Dr. Kay Potter, vice president for student affairs; Terry Hart, director of facility services; and Dr. Martin Dysart, dean of the College of Education and Human Services."
    • Not that in such a list it is correct to place a semicolon before the conjunction joining the last two items.
  4. Use a comma before a conjunction that joins the clauses of a compound sentence: "The holidays are over, and it's time to start thinking about the summer workshop schedule.
    • Beware of sentences containing independent and subordinate clauses joined by a conjunction. In such constructions no commas are necessary: "He bought that truck 10 years ago and has never had it in the shop." "Professor Jones has a laptop but seldom uses it for anything but e-mail."
  5. Use a comma or pair of commas to set off a nonrestrictive clause. A clause is nonrestrictive if it can be omitted without changing the meaning of the main clause: "'Huckleberry Finn,' which is often banned by school boards, is one of the best American novels ever written."
  6. Use a comma to set off an introductory clause: "If he receives an American Dream Grant, Lee will be able to start classes in January."
    • But don't use a comma if the main clause comes first: "Lee will start classes in January if he receives an American Dream Grant."
  7. Use commas to set off parenthetical elements that are closely related to the rest of the sentence. Use dashes (-) or parentheses () to set off elements that aren't so closely related:
    • "The professor, it was rumored, had decided not to teach his popular seminar in the fall."
    • "The provost's decision to cancel classes after the snow storm was - to say the least - welcomed by many students."
    • A number of student organizations (Minority Men Organization, International Students Organization, Hispanic American Leadership Organization and the Alliance of Black Collegians) helped plan the banquet.
  8. For appearances' sake, it's usually best to leave off commas at the ends of centered lines of text in invitations, headings, titles, and similar places.
  9. Appositives are usually set off by commas, unless their function is restrictive: "The chairwoman of the educational leadership department, Dr Janis Pearce, spent many years as a teacher and administrator in public schools."
    • "Bill's wife, Martha, runs the Upward Bound program in the TRIO office."
  10. If two or more adjectives modify a noun, separate them with commas:
    • "Dr. Patrick O'Malley is known for requiring his students to pass long, rigorous examinations.
    • But don't use a comma if the first adjective modifies the combination of the second adjective and the noun: "Dr. Robinson told Rick she had no time for his petty grammatical considerations."
    • Place commas before and after the state name in city/state combinations within a sentence: "The University is located in Maryville, which is about two hours north of Kansas City, Mo., on Highway 71.
  11. Don't use a comma before Jr., Sr., II, III, etc. They are part of the person's name and should thus not be separated from it: "Tom Stoppard is the keynote speaker at the writer's conference."
  12. Don't use a comma after words ending in -ly. Essentially the Student Senate is proposing that Northwest become a smoke-free campus.

Dashes and hyphens

There are two kinds of dashes used in University publications: the hyphen (-) and the en dash (−). Each has a number of specific uses that should not be confused. Though every rule has an exception, the em dash (- ) is best avoided.

Hyphen ( - ): This punctuation mark is used to separate the elements of a hyphenated compound (on-screen or Spanish-speaking students) or to break words at the end of lines of copy.

Hyphens can also indicate duration or continuing or inclusive numbers such as dates and times. In this application, do not put a space on either side of the punctuation mark: 1831-1995, August-September 1955, fiscal year 2005-2006.

When indicating duration or inclusive numbers, use numerals for all numbers if using the en dash: "The summer reading program is for children ages 6-12" and "Northwest students should plan on taking 12-15 hours each semester." Following are some general guidelines for the use of hyphens in compounds. When in doubt, consult "Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary" or the "AP Stylebook."

  1. Don't use a hyphen − or a comma − after words ending in -ly: "Charley Nichols was highly qualified to serve as Student Senate president."
  2. Compounds with century are hyphenated when they work as modifiers: ninth-century warfare, 14 th-century art.
  3. A compound with the prefix well should be hyphenated before the noun and open (no hyphen) after. The young professor is the daughter of a well-known mathematician.
  4. Use hyphens with temporary compounds, such as those invented by the writer: quasi-realistic, the alumni chapter's post-Homecoming party. A compound is permanent when it can be found in "Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary," the "AP Stylebook" or this style guide.
  5. Use hyphens to prevent misreadings, that is to connect two or more words so they won't be misread as modifying other words: "Brenda is a high-school student" not "Brenda is a high school student." (Brenda is in high school as opposed to Brenda is a student under the influence of drugs.) "Edward is a civil-rights activist" not "Edward is a civil rights activist." (Edward supports civil rights as opposed to Edward is a rights activist with a polite disposition.)
  6. Use a hyphen for extra clarity when the last letter of the prefix and the first letter of the word are the same (non-native), or when confusion might arise if the term is written as one word (re-signed/resigned).
  7. Use a hyphen when the second element begins with a capital letter or a numeral: anti-American, non-University, post-'80s, pre-1968.
  8. Compounds with -like and -wide are usually closed except for proper nouns or other forms in which a closed compound would likely be confusing (such as words ending with -l): Twain-like, Reagan-like, deerlike, bell-like, collegewide, schoolwide, Universitywide (avoid).
  9. Consult "Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary" or the "AP Stylebook" to determine whether to close or hyphenate common compounds such as lifelong (closed) or life-sized (hyphenated).

When using hyphens to break words at the end of lines of copy, limit hyphenation as much as possible. If you can, turn hyphenation off. If you can't, follow these general rules:

  1. Don't break a hyphenated compound in the middle of either of its component words. If the compound must be broken, break it after the hyphen.
  2. Avoid line breaks that leave only one or two letters at the beginning or end of a line.
  3. Avoid breaking personal names, proper nouns, phone or fax numbers, e-mail or WWW addresses and elements of street and mailing addresses. If you must break a Web or e-mail address, break it before a punctuation mark.

En dash ( - ): En dashes are generally used to introduce an explanatory phrase or a break in thought or speech greater than that suggested by the comma. In this application - please, please, pretty please - use a space on either side of the dash. Like ellipses, such dashes are treated exactly as if they were a word.

Don't overuse en dashes. Consider commas and parentheses as alternatives.

When using a from/to construction, use "to" instead of the en dash, and include the first two digits of calendar years: "The program accepts children from ages 1 to 5" and "Anne Phelan attended Northwest from 1975 to 1978."

Here are some other examples:

English composition − an introduction to college-level writing − is a required course for all Northwest undergraduates.

South Africa, India, Japan, Korea, England - these are just a few of the countries represented by members of Northwest's international community.

If students have a valid excuse - such as a death in their immediate family - most Northwest professors will extend assignment deadlines.


An ellipses, a punctuation mark consisting of three periods with no spaces between them and a single space on either end ( … ), indicates the omission of words from quoted text:

Example 1: A prism performance is a multi-faceted presentation during which the music is continuous, and performances are staged from a variety of positions located throughout the auditorium space.

A prism performance is a multi-faceted presentation during which … performances are staged from a variety of positions located throughout the auditorium space.


Example 2: Dr. Paul Brink, of the University of Louisville School of Music, has been commissioned to compose the centennial work, which will feature the Northwest Tower Choir and Northwest Wind Symphony. Additional performers will appear in order to enhance the prism effect.

Dr. Paul Brink, of the University of Louisville School of Music, has been commissioned to compose the centennial work. … Additional performers will appear in order to enhance the prism effect.


Example 3: Display cases featuring items from the University Archives continue to attract favorable attention from both the campus community and visitors. For those who haven't seen them, there are two displays in the J.W. Jones Student Union, one in the Administration Building and one in the Alumni House. University Archivist Carol Peterson changes the displays monthly.

Display cases featuring items from the University Archives continue to attract favorable attention from both the campus community and visitors. … University Archivist Carol Peterson changes the displays monthly.

Note that if matter preceding an ellipses is a complete sentence it ends with a period followed by a space (. …). The same is not true for commas:

"The Deans Council considered a number of alternatives … but in the end they decided not to fund the proposed degree program."


Periods should only be used with complete thoughts or sentences, and they belong inside quotation marks. Don't assume that a complete thought necessarily has to have both a noun and a verb. Why? Just don't.

In non-academic writing, use only one space after a period that ends a sentence.

Quotation marks

Periods and commas belong inside quotation marks, even when the quotation ends a sentence or consists of a single word. Semicolons and colons always fall outside quotation marks. If the quoted passage ends with a colon or semicolon, drop it.

Question marks and exclamation points should be placed inside the quotation marks only if part of the quoted matter. Try not to use exclamation marks unless they are an essential part of a quote.

Use single quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation: "I think my son is going to be very happy at Northwest," one parent said. "On the way home he kept asking, 'Are they really going to give me a laptop?'"


The semicolon is frequently misused and overused. Don't lean on this punctuation mark as a means of justifying ill-constructed, run-on sentences. However, semicolons are often the best option for separating items in a series, especially those requiring internal commas or other punctuation.

Example: Martin Levinson, vice president for university marketing and communication; Jill Williams, vice president for student affairs; and Dr. Carl Carson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences all attended the Eggs & Issues meeting.


Avoid such constructions as and/or, win/lose, male/female, faculty/staff, etc.