Editorial Style: Punctuation

For nouns plural in form but singular in meaning, add only an apostrophe:

  • mathematics' rules, measles' effects, United States' wealth.

For singular nouns ending in s sounds (but not in s itself), add apostrophe and s:

  • Butz's policies, the fox's den, Marx's theories, Xerox's product

For names ending with an unpronounced s, add apostrophe and s:

  • Descartes's Meditations, according to the author, was meant to defend the Christian faith.

For names ending with an "eez" sound, add apostrophe and s:

  • Xerxes's reign was from 486 to 465 BC.
  • Euripides's plays seem modern by comparison with those of his contemporaries.

Note: When these forms are spoken, the additional s is generally not pronounced.

Never use an apostrophe to denote the plural of a personal name:

  • the Smiths
  • NOT the Smith's.

To designate possession in a last name ending in s, such as Johns, add an apostrophe with an s

  • Johns's.

Don't use an apostrophe with plural abbreviations of degrees or tests, or with dates:

  • MBAs, SATs, GPAs
  • 1990s, 1860s

> See: plurals

Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence. Insert only one space after the colon.

  • She gave us her promise: The company will make good all the losses.
  • BUT That evening we had three goals: to eat dinner, discuss the day’s work, and get to bed before 2:00 a.m.

Unnecessary colons. The words preceding a colon should form a complete sentence. If you find yourself putting a colon after such as or a verb, it is probably incorrect. (Hint: Try reading your sentence out loud and see how silly it sounds to come to a complete stop after such as.)

The academic community favors the serial comma; in a series, put a comma before the and:

  • The campus tour included the library, the gym, and the theater.

> See: dates (Common Quandaries)

You can omit the comma after a short introductory phrase, but only if no ambiguity will result:

  • At St. Mary's you feel immediately at home.
  • BUT On the street below, a curious crowd gathered.

With conjunctions: When a conjunction such as and, but, or for links two independent clauses, use a comma before the conjunction if the subject of each clause is expressly stated:

  • We visited Washington, and our senator greeted us personally.
  • BUT We are visiting Washington and plan to see the White House.

Use a comma after introductory words ending in ly.

  • Previously, Thomas Lawley served as acting dean.

With numbers:

  • Use a comma in numbers of 1,000 and above, unless they appear in an address or SAT score.

Names of people:

  • John F. Morgan is chair of the Emory University Board of Trustees. Teresa M. Rivero serves on the executive committee of the board.

Names of states or nations, with city names:

  • Last year we had students from Selma, Alabama, and from Fargo, North Dakota; this year we have students from Dublin, Ireland, and even from Reykjavik, Iceland.

Placement with quotation marks:

  • Commas always go inside quotation marks.

>See also: academic degrees (Common Quandaries) | class of (Emory Specifics)

Note: The main Emory website and the Emory News Center are among the campus websites that follow Associated Press style, which omits the serial comma.

There are several types of dashes, each with specific uses. For our purposes here, there are three types to know: the em dash, the en dash, and the hyphen. Most word-processing programs have em and en dashes available. For those that don't, use two hyphens to represent an em dash, and a hyphen to represent an en dash.

The em dash is the longest and denotes an abrupt change, interruption, or emphatic phrase. Do not place spaces before or after the dashes:

  • The professor's hypothesis—though rejected by scholars—actually had merit.

The en dash is shorter than the em dash and is used to connect continuing or inclusive numbers:

  • 1968–1972
  • 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
  • pp. 38–45

En dashes should be used in complex adjectival phrases to avoid confusion:

  • the post–Civil War period
  • non–brain-injured patients
  • Winston-Salem–based company
  • physician-lawyer–directed program

The hyphen is used for numbers that are not inclusive, such as Social Security numbers or for hyphenated compound words, names, or modifiers:

  • word-of-mouth, Olivia Newton-John, a fast-moving car

Note: Emory websites generally substitute long dashes with a double hyphen to prevent potential garbling online.

For omission: Use to indicate any omission from within a quoted passage. Three dots—beginning with a space, and with an additional space after each dot—indicate an omission within a sentence or between the first and last words of a quoted fragment.

Spacing of ellipses: If the words preceding an ellipsis constitute a grammatically complete sentence, place a period at the end of the sentence, add a space, and then add the three dots, with spaces in between them.

  • The spirit of our American radicalism is destructive and aimless. . . . On the other side, the conservative party . . . is timid and merely defensive of property. . . . It does not build, nor write, nor cherish the arts, nor foster religion, nor establish schools.

Important: Unless you have a clearly defensible reason, don't use an ellipsis as a "trailing off" end to a phrase or sentence.

Use exclamation points sparingly. They can make writing seem both juvenile and falsely enthusiastic.

Other than for word divisions and compound modifiers, hyphen use should be limited. Hyphens are commonly but erroneously used where em dashes and en dashes should be used.

Note: Emory websites generally substitute long dashes with a double hyphen to prevent potential garbling online.

> See also: dash

Remember that parentheses, though sometimes serviceable, are jarring to the reader. If you find them cropping up often in your writing, simplify your sentences or your thoughts; try including the parenthetical material some other way.

Punctuation: If the parenthetical material is a fragment and comes at the end of your sentence, place the period outside the parenthesis (as with this example). But if the parenthetical material stands alone as a sentence, include the period within the parenthesis: (Such are the basics of correct punctuation.)

Place only one space after periods and other terminal punctuation.

Periods always go inside quotation marks.

Omit periods from academic degrees.

  • MD, PhD, ThD

For numbers and noun coinages: simply add an s:

  • YMCAs, the 1920s, CPAs, lasers, PhDs

Single letters, add 's: x's and y's, p's and q's, but all As

Italic plurals: put the final s (or 's) in roman type:

  • I love the Rubaiyat's lyrical poems.

Words as words: don't use an apostrophe:

  • His speech had too many ifs, ands, and buts.

> See also: apostrophe

With other punctuation: Periods and commas go inside. Dashes, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points go inside only if they're part of the quoted matter; otherwise, put them outside. Quotations within quotations: Alternate between double and single quotation marks: Tamara said, "Ginger told me only yesterday, 'I realize that accusing Patti of "goring his ox" was going a bit too far.' "

To link independent clauses: The semicolon can replace such conjunctions as and, but, or for:

  • The package was due last week; it arrived today.

To clarify a series: Semicolons can shed light in a series that contains internal commas:

  • He leaves a son, John Smith of Chicago; two daughters, Jane Smith of Wichita, Kansas, and Mary Smith of Denver, Colorado; and a sister, Rochelle Glick of Sweet Lips, Tennessee. (Note: the semicolon also appears before the and in such a series.)

Even when a conjunction is present, use a semicolon before it if the individual clauses contain internal commas:

  • They pulled their boats from the water, sandbagged the retaining walls, and boarded up the windows; but even with these precautions, the island was hard-hit by the hurricane.