A photograph of a sign in a park that reads, “Bird nesting area ‘Thanks’ for remaining on walks.”

Source: 20090426 028_busch_gardens, RobandSheila, Flickr

Some punctuation marks come in pairs, such as quotation marks, parentheses, and brackets. Putting only half of these punctuation marks in a sentence will frustrate readers; they will always be waiting for closure, like waiting for the second shoe to drop.

Let’s discuss these pairs in order of how frequently they are used.

Quotation marks

These double squiggles enclose direct quotations, or what someone said or wrote word for word. Whether profound or funny, a direct quotation needs a pair of quotation marks.

Socrates said, An unexamined life is not worth living.
Steve Martin said, A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.

When you proofread, check that your periods are inside the quotation marks. If you are quoting someone, all of the quoted material will be inside the quotation marks. If the quotation is a complete sentence, the terminal punctuation will also be inside the quotation marks.

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” —Groucho Marx
A photograph of a person lying face down on the ground between two parentheses

Source: Entre parenthesis, Faras dulce de leche, Flickr


Parentheses are curved brackets ( ) that look like the wrinkles you get from smiling. Parentheses are used to include extra or supplemental information (called parenthetical information) or to clarify meaning. Parentheses are used to de-emphasize material that doesn’t fit into the flow of a sentence.

Note that punctuation marks go outside the parentheses.

An icon with two brackets enclosed in a square.

Source: Brackets Icon, Adobe, Wikimedia


The third pair is brackets [ ]. This set of punctuation marks is used so seldom that you might have trouble finding them on your keyboard. Take a minute to locate the brackets on the two keys to the right of the letter “p.” Whereas parentheses are used to add supplemental material to all types of writing, brackets are used only within quoted material when another set of parentheses are needed to avoid confusion or to add clarification. See the following example quoted from the paragraph about Dorian Gray from the previous section. With the addition of the brackets, you are signifying that you have added the new information to add clarity for your readers.

"[Dorian Gray] was a character in a famous novel."

Semicolons and colons

The last two punctuation marks you will review are semicolons and colons. The semicolon, or literally half a colon (;), has gone in and out of fashion at different times. Even now, it’s not universally endorsed. Author Donald Barthelme wrote that it “was ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.” Sometimes, however, a semicolon is the best choice for joining two independent clauses that are more or less equally important.

Our discussion here is about semicolons joining two independent clauses. Like the semicolons used here, a colon must be preceded by an independent clause. Semicolons and colons share something else in common: Either one may or may not be followed by an independent clause.

You’ll notice that the information after the colon further explains the information that appears before the colon. To see how much you know about the use of semicolons and colons, do the following activity. Click on one answer for each question.

icon for interactive exercise