Are you a punctuation whiz?

By: Torrance Grey
Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

Nothing can sink a job application or make a love letter unintentionally funny faster than bad punctuation. Is yours up to the task? Find out now! (Note: This quiz is on U.S. English punctuation).

What is the main reason for using punctuation marks?

The main purpose of punctuation -- in any language -- is for ease of reading, aloud or silent. Consider how Latin was used in ancient Rome: they didn't even add spaces between words! We wonder if some of the wars they fought were simply due to misunderstandings.

In most forms of writing, the exclamation point should be used _____.

Exclamation points have a reputation for being the punctuation of choice for kids' books, comic books and too-good-to-be-true sales pitches ("Operators are standing by!"). They should be avoided in serious writing.

A question mark appears at the _____ of a sentence.

Spanish uses a question mark both at the beginning and end of a sentence (the first one is upside down). This is actually a good idea, in terms of reader clarity, but English sticks to one, at the sentence's end.

What is the most common use of a semicolon?

Often, when you have two short and closely related sentences, it's better to use a semicolon. Example: "Love hurts; pain strengthens."

When is it appropriate to use an accent mark?

OK, there is ONE exception here: when writing the kind of phonetic pronunciation guides found in dictionaries. But we're guessing you already know if you work for Merriam-Webster. (If not, check your last pay stub).

In the sentence, "The word nice is a weak adjective," how should nice be set off?

For example: "The word 'family' is often used in names of conservative political groups." Or you could italicize the word "family." But you wouldn't do both. (Yes, italics are an element of typography, not punctuation; we include it here to be thorough).

Which of the following marks is known as an ellipsis?

An ellipsis can be used to show dialogue trailing off (usually in fiction) or omitted material (usually in nonfiction). Journalists rely on ellipses when editing down an interview -- it allows reporters to skip over unnecessary remarks while noting that they did so.

Which of these is correct?

A dash would have worked here, too. Or you could rewrite the sentence. "Our ambitious itinerary included London, Paris, Venice and Cairo," works just as well.

What is another name for the "diagonal"?

Most people refer to this by its less formal name, the slash. (Example: "They have a love/hate relationship.") But rigorous English teachers will object to it: "This isn't Knife Fighting 101, you know!"

Which of these sentences is correctly punctuated?

There are two things going on in this sentence. First, quoted material within a quote uses single marks. Second, it's correct to end the sentence with a question mark, even though the sentence is not, itself, a question. There's no need for an extra period at the end, as in options #3 and #4.

Which of the following can be used to set off a list within a sentence?

Note that a colon is only used when the list ends the sentence: bread, butter, eggs. The other two can be used either to insert a list in the middle of the sentence -- bread, butter, eggs -- or to end it (bread, butter, eggs).

Can you use parentheses within parentheses?

American English uses brackets within parentheses, if the writer needs to set off words within already-set-off ones. Generally, it's better to just rephrase the sentence.

Which of these differentiates British punctuation from American punctuation?

The English use single quote marks for all dialogue, whereas Americans use it to set off a quote-within-a-quote. In addition, British writers tend to use fewer commas to denote pauses in speech. But this appears to be a matter of preference, not a hard-and-fast rule.

Which of these is correct?

Semicolon use tends to be a matter of preference. Starting a new sentence is fine here, too. But using an ellipisis really doesn't make sense.

Which of these punctuation marks is never strictly necessary?

In fact, using an ampersand in place of the word "and" is considered slangy, and should be saved for text messages and other places where space is short. If you were tempted to choose the exclamation point here, consider that it's essential in fiction dialogue. "Get out." just doesn't read the same as "Get out!"

Which of these takes no period at the end?

Even when a movie or book title is a complete sentence ("This Is How We Roll"), a period is unnecessary. However, a title in the form of a question, "Why Did I Get Married?" does require the question mark.

Is it ever appropriate to use a question mark and exclamation point side-by-side?

This punctuation style, beloved of comic-book writers, should be saved for informal writing. Humor columns in a newspaper, written in the columnist's own voice, would be one example.

If you end a sentence with an URL (web address), should a period follow it?

In the 1990s, many publications didn't use a period if they ended a sentence with an URL, for fear that readers would see it as part of the URL, and get a 404 message. Nowadays, readers are assumed to be Internet-savvy enough not to fall into this trap.

Which punctuation mark is most at risk of rendering an URL incorrect?

Hyphens are a particular risk for URLs in articles because web addresses can be quite long. So when they run over one line of text and into the next, most word-processing software will automatically hyphenate them. Then the reader has no way of knowing whether the hyphen is part of the web address or not. Experienced writers know to use a soft return in this situation, to "force" a break in the line without a hyphen.

Which sentence is correctly punctuated?

Direct address is always set off by commas, and if you "open the door" you have to "close the door" afterward. The last sentence would only require one comma, though: "We thought you'd want to see this, Jane."

Which sentence is punctuated correctly?

What this example points out is that you can usually do a list with or without a colon. In the first sentence, the words "several things" is the object of the verb "to bring," making the clause complete, so you need the colon if you want to continue on from there. In the second, "a book, a towel and sunscreen," is the object of the sentence, so no colon is needed.

Which of these is correct?

"Hers" is a possessive pronoun (as opposed to "she," the nominative form). So it requires no apostrophe to show possession. Consider, after all, what this would like ​if the bicycle belonged to a man: "The red bicycle is his's." That's clearly not right.

Which of the following is an example of "scare quotes"?

"Scare quotes" are a way of casting doubt or aspersion on something -- it's like using the word "so-called." Scare quotes are everywhere in the age of Internet debate (Twitter might be their natural habitat), but serious writers are advised to avoid them. In other words, good debaters and persuaders use facts to make their case, not punctuation.

Which of these is correct?

Unlike periods and commas, colons and semicolons go outside material in quotes. In addition, the comma in example #3 is unnecessary, and the one in #4 is inadequate to the job at hand; a colon or dash is required.

Which of these is a correct use of hyphens?

These are just a few examples of what hyphens do. The first example, creating compound words, can be particularly fun in creative writing: "He gave them a do-I-look-like-I'm-in-the-mood-for-this glance." (Note the lack of question mark, which would be disruptive here).

Which of these is correct?

Contrary to popular belief (or misunderstanding, rather), singular names that end in "s' like "Niles," "Charles" or "Paris" do require an apostophe-s, not just an apostrophe. It might be a little more awkward in speech, but them's the rules!

Does a rhetorical question need a question mark?

A rhetorical question is one that doesn't expect an answer, or maybe can't be answered. It still has that upward lilt at the end, though, which we represent in writing with the question mark:"Why did I even get up this morning?"

Which of these is correct?

The sentence above is a simple declarative statement. It doesn't directly quote the agent, so no quote marks are needed. It isn't a question in itself -- so no question mark is needed, either.

Which of these words should not be hyphenated?

When in doubt, check with a good dictionary. Some prefixes, like "half-," usually require hyphens, while others, like "over," do not. But there are exceptions to the rule, like "halfway." Often, when a word starts with the same letter on which the prefix ends, a hyphen is used for clarity. Consider the readability of "semi-illegal" and "semiillegal." (Probably better just to write "semi-legal" here, anyway).

What is an em-dash?

An em-dash is made on a keyboard with three hyphens in a row -- which modern word-processing software turns into the long dash -- and has several uses in U.S. punctuation. It's not to be confused with a hyphen.

Which of these compound words is written correctly?

The suffix -"like" is often closed (that is, one word with no hyphen), but there are exceptions: names, words of more than three syllables, and words that end in "l" are all hyphenated for clarity. Therefore, the list above would correctly read: catlike, Jefferson-like, snail-like, Hitchcock-like. (Or maybe "Hitchcockian," as lovers of the director like to say).

Which of these sentences is correct?

"After walking the dog," is an introductory phrase. It inverts the normal flow of the sentence, thus requires a comma. Fun fact: In journalism, this kind of inversion is known as How to Write a New York Times Headline: just take the last two words and stick them in front. "Longstanding tensions flare up in Macedonia," becomes "In Macedonia, longstanding tensions flare up." Voila! Instantly more cerebral-sounding!

Which of these is correct?

In the second sentence, a comma properly separates two adjectives that describe one thing. In the first example, "red" applies to "brick," and therefore needs no comma; the same thing applies to "natural" and "wood". Finally, the comma and the word "and" are redundant in the "squat, and gray" example -- you only need one or the other.

Which of these does NOT use parentheses properly?

Degrees and credentials are set off with commas, not parentheses. The other examples are correct; the parentheses indicate that these are clarifying comments which are informative, but not necessary for the sentence to make sense.

Which of these sentences is NOT punctuated correctly?

This one was subtle, but the problem is double punctuation. The period in "Co." should stand in for the period that ends the sentence.

What is a less common use for a semicolon?

Lists of cities and states are a common example here. For example: "There are FBI field offices in Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis, Minnesota; St. Louis, MIssouri; and New Orleans, Louisiana."

What is an interrobang?

The "interrobang" is a suggested replacement for a question mark followed by an exclamation point. Some keyboards offer it under "special characters," but it hasn't really caught on.

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