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The objective is to offer a simplified understanding of how to use certain separation punctuation. Using this information, a student should be able to write his/her term paper text correctly. (not to be confused with footnote or biblio text)

There are no videos because I couldn't find any accurate or thorough enough that I thought they would help. So, they are all text, but quick, pointed sections. I tried to separate the wheat from the chaff, so FOR ONCE, a student can understand how an apostrophe is used, for example. Please search for the two other "Separation Punctuation" packets and the "Enclosing Punctuation" packet, as well.

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THE APOSTROPHE (pron: "AH-po-strof" if you have s sense of humor . . . .)


The apostrophe has three uses: (how simple is that?)

  1. to form possessives of nouns
  2. to show the omission of letters
  3. to indicate certain plurals of lower case letters

For Possession

To see if you need to make a possessive, turn the phrase around and make it an "of the..." phrase. For example:

the boy's hat = the hat of the boy 
three days' journey = journey of three days

If the noun after "of" is an object, then no apostrophe is needed!

room of the hotel = hotel room 
door of the car = car door 
leg of the table = table leg

Once you've determined whether you need to make a possessive, follow these rules to create one.

  • add 's to the singular form of the word (even if it ends in -s):
    the owner's car 
    James's hat (James' hat is also acceptable.)
  • add 's to the plural forms that do not end in -s:
    the children's game 
    the geese's honking
  • add 's to the end of plural nouns that end in -s:
    two cats' toys
    three friends' letters  (For plural, proper nouns that are possessive, use an apostrophe after the 's': "The Eggles' presentation was good." The Eggles are a husband and wife consultant team.)
  • add 's to the last word of compound words:
    my brother-in-law's money
  • add 's to the last noun to show joint possession of an object:
    Todd and Anne's apartment

For missing letters (contractions)

Apostrophes are used in contractions. A contraction is a word in which one or more letters have been omitted. The apostrophe shows this omission. Contractions are common in speaking and in informal writing. (DO NOT use contractions in formal writing, unless it's a quotation.) To use an apostrophe to create a contraction, place an apostrophe where the omitted letter(s) would go. EXAMPLES:

don't = do not 
I'm = I am 
he'll = he will 
who's = who is 
shouldn't = should not 
didn't = did not 
could've= could have (NOT "could of"!) (or should of, would of, had of, etc.)
'60 = 1960

For plurals of lower case letters (unnecessary for uppercase letters)

Here, the rule appears to be more typographical than grammatical, e.g. "three p's instead of "three ps." To form the plural of a lowercase letter, place 's after the letter. There is no need for apostrophes indicating a plural on capitalized letters, numbers, and symbols. 

p's and q's  (a phrase taken from the early days of the printing press when letters were set in presses backwards so they would appear on the printed page correctly.)  EX: Nita's mother constantly stressed minding one's p's and q's.

three Macintosh G4s  (this is upper case and doesn't need an apostrophe)

many &s = "many ampersands"  EX: That printed page has too many &s on it.

the 1960s = the years in decade from 1960 to 1969  (as in upper case, an apostrophe is unnecessary)

Don't -- DO NOT! -- use apostrophes for personal pronouns, the relative pronoun who, or for noun plurals. (You'll make your teacher/professor frown.)

wronghis' book 
correcthis book  (his is already possessive; apostrophe not needed; makes it sort of a "double possessive," which makes no sense, doesn't exist) 
correctone's book
correctanybody's book 

wrongWho's dog is this? = Who is dog is this?  (makes no sense)
correctWhose dog is this?
                                                                                                                                                                           correct: Who's going to the mall? ("who is...")

wrong: The group made it's decision. = "The group made it is decision."  Doesn't make a whit of sense.
correct: The group made its decision.

(A simple way to remember this rule is the fact that you don't use an apostrophe for the possessive his or hers, so don't do it with its!)

wrong: a friend of yours' = yours friend (makes no sense)
correct: a friend of yours = your friend

wrong: She waited for three hours' to get her ticket. 
correct: She waited for three hours to get her ticket.  (plural, not possessive)

Source: Adapted from Purdue OWL Online Writing Lab

IT'S THE DASH FAMILY, starring the N Dash, the M Dash, and the 2M Dash


The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you're about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he's back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period.

__ Lewis Thomas

Use a dash [  ] informally as a "super-comma" to set off parenthetical elements, especially when those elements contain internal forms of punctuation:

All four of them—Bob, Jeffrey, Jason, and Brett—did well in college.

Formally, do not use dashes to set apart material when another type of punctuation would do the work for you. If used correctly, there are no spaces between the dash and the letters on either side of a dash, although the dash is frequently shown that way in documents prepared for the internet and e-mail.

EN and EM Dashes (informal writing)

An en dash, roughly the width of an n, is a little longer than a hyphen. It is used for periods of time when you might otherwise use to.

Examples: The years 2001–2003


An en dash is also used in place of a hyphen when combining open compounds.

Examples: North Carolina–Virginia border

a high school–college conference

Most authorities recommend using no spaces before or after en or em dashes

An em dash is the width of an m, and is used primarily in informal writing. Em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.


You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me. (A parentheses would be used in formal writing.)

I pay all the bills—she has all the fun.                               (A semi-colon would be used in formal writing.)

I wish you would—oh, never mind. 
(This shows an abrupt change in thought and warrants an em dash. An abrupt change of thought does not appear in formal writing.)

I need three items at the store—dog food, vegetarian chili, and cheddar cheese. 
(A colon would be used here in formal writing.)


The 2m can be used to mark an abrupt break in direct or reported speech, but a space is used before the 2m if a complete word is missing, while no space is used if part of a word exists before the sudden break. Examples:

     I distinctly heard him say, 'Go away or I'll ——'.  (space, then 2m dash)


     It was alleged that D—— had been threatened with blackmail.

PARENTHESES v. BRACKETS (Subtitled:"I couldn't find one accurate video that explained the difference [What??], so I wrote it all.")

Parentheses (the rounded ones) v. Brackets [the square ones]

The difference COULD be confusing. But it isn't. Just remember this:

Parentheses aren't necessary for the sentence to make sense. Parentheses (informally, "parens") separate words, or a phrase, or a clause to clarify or further explain something, but the sentence would make perfect sense without the parens.  In many cases, commas would do just as well.

Brackets are usually necessary for the sentence to make sense. Brackets are used in "stronger" circumstances. Brackets also separate words, phrases, or clauses, like parens, but these more necessary in the sentence -- in most cases, completely necessary for the sentence to make sense. Commas? Don't even try commas. Commas = verboten.

PARENTHESES   (unnecessary, but they add information)

Parens are used to set off nonessential material, such as dates, clarifying information, or sources,

Overuse of parens is bad writing, and often, commas would work just as well. 

Parens may be used in formal writing to add supplementary information, such as "Sen. John McCain (R., Arizona) spoke at length." 

They can also indicate shorthand for "either singular or plural" for nouns – e.g., "the claim(s)." 

Any punctuation inside parentheses is independent of the rest of the text: "Mrs. Nickeldime (Yes, that was her name!) was my landlady."  Parens place more emphasis on the enclosed content than commas. Parenthesized text is usually short and within a single sentence, and again, unnecessary. It's added "for flavor," as it were.

If you want to put a parenthetical expression within a parenthetical expression, you could use another set of parens, but in formal writing (i.e., "by the book") you would use brackets [ ]  for the second set, and braces { } for a third set, if necessary.  (Braces, however, are mostly used in math.) 


Br-r-r-r-r-r-r-ackets! (the wind chill is below freezing as I write this)

Brackets are mainly used to enclose explanatory or missing material usually added by someone other than the original author, especially in quoted text.

EXAMPLES: "I appreciate [the honor], but I must refuse", and "The future of psionics [see definition] is in doubt".  NOTE: in neither case are the brackets necessary. The first one replaces the original word ("it"), which wouldn't have been as clear; the second one is more helpful than necessary.

They may also be used to modify quotations. EXAMPLE, if referring to someone's statement, "I hate to do laundry," one could write: She said that she "hate[s] to do laundry."  (necessary)

The bracketed expression "[sic]" (italics because it's Latin [foreign language]) is used to indicate errors that are written incorrectly in the original text. (necessary)

A bracketed ellipsis [...] is often used to indicate omitted material. (nec.)

Bracketed comments may indicate when original text has been modified for clarity. EXAMPLES: "I'd like to thank [several unimportant people] and my parentals [sic] for their love, tolerance [...] and assistance [bold added]." (all necessary)

In translated works, brackets are used to signify the same word or phrase in the original language to avoid ambiguity. EXAMPLE: "He is trained in 'the way of the open hand' [karate]." (not necessary, but certainly helpful to the uninitiated)

Source: Purdue OWL Online Writing Lab;