The clearest business writing uses simple punctuation marks because they help the reader navigate through the text most easily. The Business Writing Center’s courses in grammar contain the training business writers need to use punctuation correctly. More on the courses

Rarely use the following punctuation marks in business writing

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

  • Business writers use these punctuation marks in nonstandard ways so the meanings of the punctuation marks are not clear to the readers.
  • Even when used correctly, the meanings of some punctuation marks are most often lost on readers. Most readers interpret them as simply breaks in the sentence.
  • 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 businesspeople, are not sure how to us them correctly, don’t use them at all.

Test your knowledge of the unusual punctuation marks: Take the test

Dashes (em dash — and en dash –)

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

However, commas and parentheses are better punctuation marks to interrupt sentences. Use commas in your business writing instead of dashes to insert information into the sentence because commas maintain the flow of information. Use parentheses around information in business writing 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—like this strong interruption.
  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.
  4. Don’t put blank spaces before or after dashes you your business writing. 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 points (!)

Except for use in newsletters and informal 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 e‑mail: “Change the date!!!!!!” Readers feel you’re screaming at them and may misunderstand the feeling you’re conveying. They’ll assume the worst.

Ellipses ( . . . )

Some 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 in your business writing 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 within 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. Slashes 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 or after slashes in business writing.

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. Use it when you are sure it is necessary and the reader will understand it.

Semicolons ( ; )

Avoid using semicolons in your business writing 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 in business writing 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 in business writing unless your company has adopted them for some specialized use, such as around the names of keyboard keys: “Press the [Esc] key.” Brackets are another form of punctuation writers use as special notations, but their special meaning is often known only to the writer. Standard business writing 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 the following punctuation marks freely in business writing

Commas (,)

Commas create clear, explicit sentences in business writing. 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 standard comma usage.

Use commas to make your business writing 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.

You may take the Business Writing Center test to evaluate your knowledge of comma usage: Take the test

To apply the guidelines that follow, start by finding the subject the sentence is about and its action. Sometimes, they’re separated. The subject 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 your business writing clear.

Comma Use Guideline 1

If a sentence in your business writing 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.

Comma Use Guideline 2

If a sentence in your business writing 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. The main sentences in these examples are bolded.

We finally reached the house, totally exhausted.

The car was older, but elegant.

Comma Use Guideline 3

If a sentence in your business writing contains two subjects 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. Put a comma between two sentences joined by “and,” “but,” or “or.”

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.

Comma Use Guideline 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.

Comma Use Guideline 5

If a sentence in your business writing has two or more words describing something following the words, put a comma between the describing words 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.

Comma Use Guideline 6

If the sentence has items in a list connected by “and,” put a comma at the end of each item, including right 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.

Periods (.)

Use periods at the ends of all complete sentences in your business writing, even complete sentences 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 at the ends of headings.

Watch for run-on sentences in your business writing. 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 in your business writing. 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.

Colons (:)

A colon is two periods in a column ( : ). The colon is not the same as a semicolon ( ; ), which is a comma below a period. Use colons in your business writing at the ends of sentences to show that 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. Don’t continue the sentence after you’ve finished the explaining or defining words.

Parentheses ( )

Use parentheses in your business writing 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 to mark sentences in your business writing that are questions. Don’t put a question mark at the end of a sentence that is not a question to try to make the sentence into a question. 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 ( ” ) in business writing unless you are quoting something within a quotation: “Wei said, ‘Put these on the wall’ and gave Terri the posters.” Put quotation marks around words you are quoting from some source, including keys on a keyboard, words on a computer screen, statements someone has made, and portions of text from a publication. Also place quotation marks around words you refer to as words and words you are using in irony.

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Business Writing InstructorDr. Robert Hogan teaches the coaching, tutoring, and individualized business writing courses. Dr. Hogan has been training writers for 40 years in universities, colleges of business, consulting companies, and professional writing companies. He has been been a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County College, and Illinois State University College of Business. He was manager of communications in a telephone billing company and owner of a company writing documents on contract for government agencies and corporations.

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