Reading Assignment

Guidelines for these skills


1.       Rarely use these punctuation marks:

Em dash ( — )

Exclamation points ( ! )

Ellipses ( . . . )

Slashes ( / )

Semicolons ( ; )

Brackets ( [ ] )


2.       Use these punctuation marks freely:

Commas ( , )

Periods ( . )

Colons ( : )

Parentheses (  )

Question marks ( ? )

Quotation marks ( "  ' )

Explicit business writing uses the simplest punctuation marks because they help the reader navigate through the text most easily.

Rarely use these punctuation marks.

Some punctuation marks do not make business writing clearer.  They may even cause confusion for three reasons:

1.       Business writers use them in nonstandard ways so their meanings are not clear to the reader. 

2.       Even when used correctly, their meanings are most often lost on readers.  Most readers interpret them as simply breaks in the sentence.

3.       Other, simpler punctuation marks communicate more quickly and easily.

You may know how to use these punctuation marks appropriately, and they may contribute to the clarity of your writing.  If so, you may decide to continue to use them.  However, if you, like most business people, are not sure how to us them correctly, don't use them at all.

Em dash ( — )          Many business writers don't realize that a dash is different from a hyphen.  A hyphen is a short horizontal line: ( - ).  Use hyphens only to join words or within words.  A dash is two or three times the length of a hyphen: ( — and – ).  Use dashes to interrupt sentences and show ranges of numbers.

                                      However, commas and parentheses are better punctuation marks to interrupt sentences.  Use commas instead of dashes to insert information into the sentence because commas maintain the flow of information.  Use parentheses around information that is clearly not part of the flow of the sentence. 

                                      Most business writers don't know these rules for using dashes:

1.     There are two dashes: an em dash ( — ) and an en dash ( – ).

2.     An em dash is the longer dash.  Use an em dash to make a strong interruption in a sentence—only a strong interruption. Most writers don't know how to use em dashes. We recommend you not use em dashes in your business writing. 

3.     An en dash is shorter than an em dash, but longer than a hyphen.  Use an en dash to show ranges of numbers: 1995–1998. You will use the en dash between numbers in your business writing.

4.     Don't put blank spaces before or after dashes.  That likely will change in the future because publications are commonly putting spaces before and after dashes, but for now, the spaces are still not acceptable in business writing.

Exclamation              Except for use in newsletters and informal

points ( ! )                   statements, don't use exclamation points in business writing.  Readers expect you to be objective, so they feel uncomfortable if you express emotion, such as that suggested by an exclamation point. 

                                      Especially don't use a string of exclamation points in email: "Change the date!!!!!!"  Readers feel you're screaming at them and may misunderstand the feeling you're conveying.  They'll assume the worst.

Ellipses ( . . . )            Business writers use three to five periods in a row to show a change in thought, a pause, or other interruption in the text.  However, the reader can't interpret the meaning the writer is giving to the periods, and it is a misuse of a form of punctuation called an ellipsis.  An ellipsis should be three periods separated by spaces: ( . . . ). Use the ellipsis within a quotation to show that words have been omitted from the quotation.  You may also use an ellipsis to show that a choice must be made in an "If . . . then" statement in a procedure.  Otherwise, don't use the ellipsis.

Slashes ( / )                Don't use slashes in business writing except in fractions or names everyone spells with slashes.  They don't convey the relationship between the words separated by slashes.  For example, is a supervisor/coordinator a supervisor who is also a coordinator, a supervisor and a coordinator, a supervisor or a coordinator, or a supervisor also called a coordinator?  The reader isn't sure. 

                                      Substitute the word describing the relationship for the slash.  Of course, if your company actually has a "supervisor/coordinator" position, you must spell that title with the slash.  Don't put blank spaces before and after slashes.

                                      Business writers often use "and/or" when "and" or "or" will suffice.  If you feel the reader may be confused if you use "and" or "or" when it could be either, state that explicitly.  The statement, "I will meet with your designer and/or graphic artist," would be better written in this way: "I will meet with your designer or graphic artist or both."  However, "and/or" does work at rare times; just use it when you are sure it is necessary and the reader will understand it.

Semicolons ( ; )        Avoid using semicolons unless you know well how they should be used.  Business writers use them to extend sentences or as a special code meaningful to the writer that is lost on the reader.  The semicolon is often confused with the colon ( : ).

                                      Semicolons may be used to separate items in a list when the list has longer items and is embedded in a paragraph.  However, explicit business writing requires that lists with longer items be broken out with bullets or numbers.  If you feel the need to use semicolons between items in a sentence, that is an indication that you should break the list out using numbers or bullets.

Brackets ( [ ] )           Don't use brackets unless your company has adopted them for some specialized use, such as around the names of keyboard keys: "Press the [Esc] key."  They are another form of punctuation writers use as special notations, but their special meaning is often known only to the writer.  Standard usage for brackets requires that they be limited to these uses:

1.     In quotations to show that the writer has added words to clarify the quotation

2.     As parentheses within parentheses in text

3.     To set off phonetic symbols, such as [ä]

Use these punctuation marks freely.


Commas create clear, explicit sentences.  This short explanation of how to use commas in business writing is not intended to suggest that you should not learn standard usage rules for commas.  It is just that many business writers don't know the rules or don't apply them, so this advice about using commas provides a set of easy-to-apply guidelines you can use while you're learning the rules for comma usage.

Use commas to make text clearer.  The comma is a signal to the reader that a small change in the text is occurring.  When you believe a comma will make the writing clearer, put one in.  If a comma might interrupt the flow of the sentence or might make it unclear, don't put one in. 

Don't put in a comma every place you seem to pause as you say the sentence to yourself.  Sometimes that makes the sentence less clear because it breaks up the thought.

To apply the guidelines that follow, start by finding the thing the sentence is about and its action.  Sometimes, they're separated.  The thing and action form the main part of the sentence.  The main parts are bolded in these sentences:

In a moment, we saw the car turn around.

Before the meeting, we introduced ourselves to the guests.

Follow these guidelines for using commas to make the writing clear. 

1.       If the sentence has words that come before the main part, put a comma after the words to show that you've finished them and you're starting the main part of the sentence.  The main parts are bolded in these examples:

After eating, we listened to John speak.

To our surprise, the room was very spacious.

2.       If the sentence has words that come after the main part, put a comma before the words to show that you've finished the main part and are adding a thought.

We finally reached the house, totally exhausted.

The car was older, but elegant.

3.       If the sentence contains two things and two actions, forming two main parts, put a comma between them to show that the first main part has ended and the next main part is beginning.

After we loaded the packages, the truck drove away.

This vendor will do for now, but we need to find a more reliable one soon.

The brochures didn't meet our standards, and they arrived two days late.

Sara and Jim arrived on time, so they saw the opening.

4.       Put commas before and after information you have inserted in the middle of the sentence.  Usually, the sentence would be unclear without the commas.

The software we purchased, which was the full version, doesn't have the functions we expected.

Later in the day, after the test was completed, we found that the problem was in the instrument.

We did find, to our surprise, that none of the switches had been turned on.

5.       If you use two or more words to describe something following the words, put a comma between them to show that they each refer to the word following, not to each other.

Bring the large, red binder with you to the meeting.

He was a confident, upbeat, articulate candidate for the position.

Inside the pipes were old, worn gaskets.

6.       If the sentence has items in a list connected by "and," put a comma at the end of each item, even just before the "and."

You should access the page, click on "Agents," and locate the agent's name in the list you see.

We'll have to set up product support, fulfillment, and billing.

I was pleased to see that the new version is easier to use, faster in preparing reports, less difficult to navigate, and capable of handling more customers.


Use periods at the ends of all complete sentences, even in lists.  Periods are clear signals to the reader that a thought has ended.

However, don't put periods at the ends of items in lists when the items are not complete sentences.  Normally, don't put periods after headings unless they are complete sentences. 

Watch for run-on sentences.  When you insert a comma in a longer sentence, check to see whether you really want to end the first part of the sentence with a period.  If you have complete sentences before and after the comma, insert a period and make two sentences.

Watch for sentence fragments.  When you put a period at the end of a short sentence, check to be sure the words before the period and the words after the period do not need to be in the same sentence. 


A colon is two periods in a column ( : ).  It is not the same as a semicolon ( ; ), which is a comma below a period.  Use colons at the ends of sentences to show that the text that follows explains or defines the words just before the colon.  You must have a complete sentence before the colon.  The words that follow a colon should be added information about the last concept in the sentence.  After the colon, write the explaining or defining words and a period.


Use parentheses when the information you are inserting into a sentence won't fit into the flow of the sentence.  Parentheses help make the sentence clear because they indicate that the information is important, but not part of the flow of the sentence.  However, your first choice is always to use commas so the information remains part of the normal flow of the sentence.  If you use parentheses often, look at the information you're putting into parentheses to see whether it could go into the sentence without the parentheses. 

Question marks 

Use question marks as usual.  Never use a series of question marks to ask a question emphatically: "Where is the report????"  It feels like you're scolding and the reader may feel you're angry.

Quotation marks

Use double quotation marks ( " ) unless you are quoting something within a quotation: "Wei said, 'Put these on the wall' and gave Terri the posters."