Punctuation Matters

The following two letters contain the same exact words—but the punctuation differs sharply. Which letter would you rather receive?

These letters tell us a lot about John and Harriet—but they tell us even more about the importance of punctuation. Change a comma here, move a period there … and the entire document is different. That's why punctuation matters; it creates meaning as much as words do.

Show Me the Money

I'll bet that you know a lot more than you think about the correct way to use standard punctuation. To prove it, I'm going to ask you to take this simple quiz. In each case, write C if the punctuation is correct or W if the punctuation is incorrect. Answers and explanations follow.

  • Two men (1) ___ ,_ sentenced to die in the electric chair on the same day (2) ___ ,_ were led to the room in which they would meet their maker. The priest had given the last rites (3) ___ the warden had given the formal speech, and the participants had said a final prayer.
  • The warden, turning to the first man, solemnly asked (4) ___ “Son (5) ___ ,_ do you have a last request (6) ___ ?”
  • The man replied, “Yes sir, I do (7) ___ . I love dance music. Could you please play the Chicken Dance for me one last time?”
  • (8) ___ Certainly (9) ___ ,_”_ replied the Warden. He turned to the other man and asked, “Well (10) ___ ,_ what about you, son? What is your final request?”
  • “Please kill me first,” replied the other man.


  1. C (use a comma to set off nonessential information)
  2. C (use a comma to set off nonessential information)
  3. W (comma needed to set off introductory clause)
  4. W (comma needed before a direct quotation)
  5. C (use a comma to set off a word of direct address)
  6. C (use a question mark to indicate a question; place it inside the quotation marks)
  7. C (use a period to indicate the end of a statement)
  8. W (use quotation marks to set off dialogue)
  9. C (use a comma to set off dialogue)
  10. C (use a comma to set off interrupting expressions)
So how did you do?
8 to 10 correct Were you a proofreader in a past life?
5 to 7 correct There's no reason to hide under the bed when you see a semicolon.
4 to 6 correct I can help you, baby, I really can.
1 to 3 correct You love the Chicken Dance, you say?
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.


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