Punctuation Matters

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

  • Dear John:
  • I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can forever be happy—will you let me be yours?
  • Harriet
  • Dear John:
  • I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can forever be happy. Will you let me be?
  • Yours,
  • Harriet

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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