How to Use Punctuation Marks Effectively | Writing

November 21, 2014 thetasctest

iStock_6328186_837x563 The TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™ Writing subtest highlights a few punctuation marks as high emphasis focus points for test takers. These punctuation marks include: commas, ellipses, dashes, semicolons, and colons. It can be helpful to review and practice using these punctuation marks in your everyday writing. You might realize that you’ve already been using these marks correctly – and now that you know, you can use them more purposefully.


According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are three main reasons for using a colon:

  1. To separate two main clauses in cases where the second clause explains, or follows, from the first.

It wasn’t easy: I had to start at the beginning.

  1. To introduce a list.

To apply for this position, you must have: a post-secondary degree, at least one year of experience, and good recommendations.

  1. To introduce a quotation or direct speech.

The billboard read: ‘Try Ovaltine! America’s Favorite Chocolate Drink”


According to Jane Straus, the author of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, the comma is the most frequently used punctuation mark after the period. Commas differ from periods because they do not indicate a final period. Commas indicate brief pauses. There are many different ways you can use a comma. You can use a comma to:

  1. Separate words or word groups in a simple series, or list, of three or more items.
  2. Separate two adjectives when the adjectives are interchangeable.
  3. Separate two independent clauses that are joined by a conjunction. Place the comma at the end of the first clause, before the conjunction.
  4. Set off expressions that interrupt the sentence flow.
  5. Set off the name, nickname, term of endearment, or title of a person directly addressed.
  6. Start a sentence with a dependent clause.
  7. Set off nonessential words, clauses, or phrases.
  8. Separate a statement from a question.

There are many other ways in which you can use a comma. The most important rule is to always use it correctly. Here’s our favorite trick for knowing when you need a comma: read your sentence aloud. In speech writing, commas are used to indicate when the speaker should pause for breath. If your sentence is too long, and you run out of breath before you finish saying it, you know you need a comma.


The Oxford Dictionary notes that dashes are most commonly used in informal writing, such as personal emails or blogs – and you might have seen them in some of the TASC test blog posts! It’s best to use the dash sparingly when you write formally. You can use a dash to:

  1. Mark off information or ideas that are not essential to an understanding of the rest of the sentence.
  2. Show other kinds of breaks in a sentence where a comma, semicolon, or colon would be traditionally used.

In terms of substituting for other kinds of punctuation marks, the dash can help emphasis a concluding statement similar to a colon. Some writers prefer spaces around the dash, and others do not. Keep this in mind if you decide to use a dash on your writing subtest.


Straus notes that the most common use of an ellipsis is to demonstrate that words have been omitted from a quoted passage. When writing in response to a reading or quotation, you might consider using ellipses to focus on a more concise statement. Ellipses are a great way to save space or remove material that isn’t as relevant as the rest of the sentence. For example, you might want to refer to only part of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, “All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse.” You could quote Franklin, using an ellipsis, in this way: “All human situations have their inconveniences . . . and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment.” Additionally, you can use ellipses to express hesitation, changes of mood, or suspense in writing dialogue. This is most effective in creative writing, and probably won’t be used in this way on your writing subtest. Straus adds that “writers also use ellipses to indicate a pause or wavering in an otherwise straightforward sentence.” For example: I’m not sure . . . Maybe you should ask Dave.


Semicolons mark a break in the sentence that is stronger than a comma, but not as final as a full stop. To use it correctly, you would place the semicolon between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely link to be made into separate sentences. In this way, you can think of the semicolon as replacing a conjunction: Sarah loves to bake muffins; she makes very good banana nut ones. There is an additional way you can use semicolons. If you have written a complex list that contains phrases or commas, you can use semicolons where you would typically use commas. For example: I invited a few people over, like Sam from my work; Rachel and Joe, from down the street; and Tim from your dad’s accounting firm. Looking for some practice? Try these grammar exercises and exercise masters from Diana Hacker’s Bedford Handbook.  

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