1. Union College Home
  2. Offices & Services
  3. Communications
  4. Policies and Guidelines
  5. Style Guide Quick Reference
  6. Writing for Union
  7. Punctuation



Spell out the word “and” instead of using the ampersand symbol (&) in running text. Exceptions include phrases such as “R&D” and corporate or institutional names that are generally abbreviated such as AT&T or Texas A&M. Note that there is no space on either side of the ampersand with these initialisms.

Use the ampersand when it is part of a company’s formal name, such as Johnson & Johnson, or when the ampersand is part of a composition title, such as U.S. News & World Report.

Avoid using an ampersand for College of Arts and Science or other Vanderbilt entities.


When figures are omitted: The ’20s were a rip-roaring time in American popular culture.

Note that there is no apostrophe before the “s” when referring to decades.


When letters are omitted: It’s a great time to be alive; Don’t step on my blue suede shoes; rock ’n’ roll; gone fishin’.

When using plurals of a single letter: Mind your p’s and q’s. In the introductory class, 15 students earned B’s and 25 earned C’s.

Do not use with multiple-letter combinations unless they are abbreviations using periods.

List URLs at the end of news releases.

  • Everyone in this office must learn the ABCs of media relations.
  • The department awarded many Ph.D.’s last year.

Be sure to use the apostrophe (which looks like a 9) and not the single open quote (which looks like a 6) or the footmark (which is straight, not curly).

Note: The apostrophe is not used to denote the plural of a personal name: The Smiths and Campbells left Tuesday. The Joneses left Wednesday. The Edwardses left Thursday.


Headings and titles: Capitalize the first and last word and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and subordinating conjunctions (although, because, if, when, etc.).

Lowercase articles (the, a, an), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions (about, by, in, of, under, toward, through, etc.) regardless of length, unless they are the first or last words.

Lowercase the “to” in infinitives: It Is Better to Give.

For headlines and subheads on news releases, only the first word and proper nouns should be capitalized.


The most frequent use of a colon is at the end of a sentence to introduce lists, tabulations, texts, etc.

First word after a colon: Capitalize if a proper noun. News Style recommends capitalizing the first word if it is the start of a complete sentence. Non-news Style recommends lowercase in this instance, but capitalizing the first word if the colon is followed by two or more sentences, speech in dialogue or an extract.

With lists: Do not use a colon to set off a list of single words or simple phrases. Do not use after forms of the verb “to be.” A colon may be used to set off a bulleted list or a list composed of long phrases.

  •    Other topics covered during the fellowship included: distance learning, training teachers to use technology and integrating technology into classrooms in a meaningful way.

Emphasis: The colon can be used to add emphasis.

  •    He had only one hobby: eating.


When using in a series: News Style uses commas to separate elements in a series, but does not put a comma before the conjunction:

  •     The flag is red, white and blue.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction.

  •      I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.
  •      The School of Engineering, the College of Arts and Science, and Peabody College are involved in the new initiative.

In general, when in doubt, leave it out. Non-news Style recommends using the serial comma (the comma before the conjunction in a series):

  •    The flag is red, white, and blue.

In compound sentences:  Use commas to separate independent clauses of a compound sentence:

  •      The group has ambitious plans for expanding the volunteer services they provide, and members are actively recruiting among their peers.

Be careful to distinguish between a compound sentence (two or more independent clauses) and a compound predicate (two or more verbs having the same subject).

Do not use a comma with a compound predicate.

  • She attended three meetings that morning and in the afternoon went to class. (The subject of the sample sentence is she and the verbs are attended and went.)

With names: Set off a title with commas but not the designations Jr. or II.

  • Hans Mueller, professor of classics, is the chair of the committee.
  • John Smith Jr. and John Doe II are also on the committee.

With locations: Use commas to set off the elements in addresses and names of geographical places or political divisions.

  • The people in Schenectady, N.Y. are friendly.

With dates: When month, day, and year are included in a date in running text, use commas before and after the year:

  • On March 10, 2011, all candidates were interviewed.

Do not use a comma if only the month and year are mentioned.

  • Five candidates were on campus in July 2010 for a series of interviews.

Dash (em-dash)

The em-dash expresses a pause, an abrupt change in thought or a parenthetical statement; it may be used instead of a colon to precede a list. It separates a word, phrase or clause from the rest of the sentence.

  • Some parents started the day with high levels — they hit the ground running — while others had a blunted daytime cortisol level.
  • In every sense – educational, philosophical, practical – the partnership works.

Spacing, em-dash, News Style: A space should separate a dash from the word preceding and the word following it.

  • Tumors require supply lines — new blood vessels — to support their growth and spread.


Spacing, em-dash, Non-news Style: There should be no space on either side of the dash.

Tumors require supply lines—new blood vessels—to support their growth and spread.

Dash (en-dash): In Non-news Style, the en-dash (which is half the length of an em-dash, but longer than a hyphen) is used to indicate a range or route (where it can stand for the word “to”). It may also express a connection between two things of equal weight (standing in for the words and, to, or versus).

  • Date and time ranges: March–May, 1–2 p.m.
  • Page ranges: pp. 11–15
  • Routes: New York–London flight

Two words of equal weight that are associated but shouldn’t be hyphenated: mother–daughter relationship

Compound adjectives in which one of the parts of the compound is made up of more than one word or a hyphenated word:

  • Civil War–era document,
  • pre–World War II policy,
  • North Carolina–Virginia border,
  • Pulitzer Prize–winning author,
  • high-priority–high-pressure tasks

Note that News Style does not use the en-dash. In the above instances, News Style would use a hyphen instead of an en-dash.

Do not combine a preposition with a dash when indicating a range.

  • Right: The exhibit will be on display from March 2 through April 10. Or: The exhibit will be on display March 2–April 10.
  • Wrong: The exhibit will be on display from March 2–April 10.


Three dots (periods) used to indicate a pause or to indicate word(s), sentence(s) or

paragraph(s) omitted from quoted material.

Spacing, News Style: Ellipses should be preceded and followed by a space:

  •    I ... have trouble ... collecting my thoughts.

If the words preceding an ellipsis constitute a grammatically complete sentence, a period should precede the ellipsis:

  •    I had a very good time. ... But I wouldn’t want to go back.

Non-news Style recommends inserting space before and after the ellipsis and between each of the three ellipsis points:

  •    I . . . have trouble . . . collecting my thoughts.
    •    I had a very good time. . . . but I wouldn’t want to go back.

Essential clauses and nonessential clauses

An essential (or restrictive) clause is one that is essential to the meaning of the sentence, i.e., it identifies and/or specifies the subject. No comma should be used with an essential clause. A nonessential (or nonrestrictive) clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence but provides additional information. In general, “that” introduces essential clauses and no comma is used.

Use “which” to introduce nonessential clauses, and set off the clause with commas.

  •     Nonessential clause: The book, which has a red cover, has sold many copies.
  •    Essential clause: The book that has a red cover has sold many copies. However, the book that has a blue cover is not selling well.

See also that vs. which.

Exclamation point: Use sparingly. Never use in a news release.

Headline: For news releases, only the first word and proper nouns should be capitalized in headlines and subheads.

See also capitalization and titles of works.

Hyphen: Hyphens are used inside words to separate their parts from each other. This includes using the hyphen between the parts of a compound word, where two or more words express a single concept.

Compound modifiers: When a compound modifier — two or more words that express a single concept — precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb “very” and all adverbs that end in “-ly”:

  • a full-time job
  • a know-it-all attitude
  • a well-known person.
  • But: federally funded research.

With fractions: Use a hyphen when writing out fractions.

  • The measure requires a two-thirds vote to pass.

Suspensive: He received a 10- to 20-year sentence in prison. The camp is open for 8- to 12-year-old children.

With time/date/number spans (News Style): Do not combine a preposition with a hyphen.

  • Right: The exhibit will be on display from March 2 through April 10. Or: The exhibit will be on display March 2-April 10.
  • Wrong: The exhibit will be on display from March 2-April 10.

Note that Non-news Style uses the en-dash for time/date/number spans instead of the hyphen.

See also dash.


Run-in lists: For a listing that runs in with text, use either numerals or italic letters within parentheses.

  • Data are available from three groups: (1) students attending the first session of    the conference, (2) presenters for all sessions and (3) conference staff. Generally a comma is sufficient to separate the items listed. Use a semicolon if the items themselves contain commas.

Vertical lists, bulleted or numbered: Use a bulleted list if the order of the items is not significant; use a numbered list if the items are to be considered in a particular order.

Introduce the list with a grammatically complete sentence followed by a colon.

Each entry in the list should begin with a capital letter whether or not the entry is a complete sentence. No period is required at the end of entries unless one or more of the entries is a complete sentence, in which case a period should be used at the end of all the entries.

Items in a list should be syntactically similar; for example, each might begin with a verb

ending in -ing.

  • The coaches look for several characteristics when recruiting players:

- talent and skill in the sport

- sufficient academic preparation

- positive attitude

If a list completes the sentence that introduces it, then the items begin with lowercase letters. In addition, commas or semicolons are used to separate each item, and the last item ends with a period.

  • A coach may be interested in recruiting a player if the athlete

- displays a solid understanding of the fundamentals of the sport,

- has sufficient academic preparation to meet the requirements of Union classes,

- maintains a positive attitude.


Place a period outside a closing parenthesis if the material inside is not a sentence:

  • I will leave at noon (if I finish this punctuation guide).

Place the period inside the closing parenthesis if the material inside is a complete sentence:

  • (This is an independent parenthetical sentence, and therefore the

period comes before the closing parenthesis.)


Primary use of a period is to mark the end of a declarative or imperative sentence. It should be followed by a single space. Periods always go inside quotation marks. See also ellipsis and parentheses.


Proper nouns: The plural is generally formed by adding -s or -es. This is true for proper names as well. The apostrophe is not used to form the plural of proper nouns:

  • The Joneses and the Smiths spent two cold Januarys in Schenectady.

Letters and numbers: Add -s to form the plural of numbers and capitalized multiple letters used as words:

  • two IOUs, six YMCAs, the 1960s, the ’20s.

Use apostrophe + s to form the plural of lowercase letters used as words, single capitalized letters used as words, and abbreviations with periods:

  • M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s, x’s and y’s, the three R’s


Form the possessive of singular nouns by adding apostrophe + s:

  • teacher’s building’s
  • child’s
  • witness’s

Plural nouns ending in “s” form the possessive by adding an apostrophe:

  • teachers’
  • buildings’
  • witnesses’

Plural nouns not ending in s form the possessive by adding apostrophe + s:

  • children’s
  • women’s

Proper nouns: According to Non-news Style, the rule for singular nouns applies to proper nouns as well, regardless of the ending letter:

  • Dickens’s novel
  • Burns’s poetry

News Style, however, recommends using only an apostrophe to form possessive for singular proper names ending in -s:

  •    Dickens’ novel

Either is correct, but do aim for consistency.

When a proper noun is set in italic type, the possessive ending is not set in italic.

  • Some were surprised by Newsweek’s cover.

Quotation marks

Use single quotation marks in news headlines and for quotes within quotes.

“Smart” quotes, not "straight" quotes, should be used. Semicolons and colons go outside quotation marks.

Periods and commas go inside the closing quotation mark.

Quotation marks are used for articles, poems, short stories, songs, lectures, TV and radio programs (but a TV/radio series name is in italic). Quotation marks are not needed for academic course titles.


In series: Use semicolons to separate items in a series when the items use internal commas. A semicolon should be placed before the conjunction in such a series.

  • Previous winners of the Vanderbilt Prize in Biomedical Science are Ann Graybiel, Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Elizabeth Blackburn, Morris Herzstein Endowed Professor in Biology and Physiology, University of California, San Francisco; and Nancy Andreasen, Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry, University of Iowa.


Punctuation marks, including periods and colons, should be followed by one space only.


That vs. which

In general, use that to introduce essential clauses, and do not precede that with a comma.

Use which to introduce nonessential clauses, and set off the clause with commas. An essential (or restrictive) clause is one that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. A nonessential (or nonrestrictive) clause is not essential to the meaning of the sentence but provides additional information. (See essential clauses and nonessential clauses.)