Periods, question marks, and exclamation points signal the end of a sentence. Use a period after plain statements or commands; use a question mark after questions; use an exclamation point after strongly emotional expressions. Ordinarily, the character of the sentence dictates the proper end punctuation; for instance, a clearly interrogative sentence calls for a question mark.

Occasionally, however, your readers will not be able to tell from content alone what you intend the meaning of a sentence to be. In such cases, end punctuation is vital to meaning. For example, notice the different intentions of the three sentences below and how the end punctuation contributes to meaning:

He struck out with the bases loaded.
He struck out with the bases loaded?
He struck out with the bases loaded!

Use a period to signal the end of a statement, a mild command, or an indirect question.

STATEMENT She swam the mile with easy strokes.

COMMAND Swim with easy strokes.

INDIRECT QUESTION I asked her where she learned to swim with such easy strokes.

Use a period after an abbreviation.

Dr. Mr. Mrs. Ms. R.N. C.P.A.

Omit the period after abbreviations that serve as names of organizations or government agencies (NABISCO, PTA, NFL, UNICEF, CIA, DOD). If you are in doubt about whether to use periods in an abbreviation, consult a good dictionary for the standard practice.

Use a question mark after a direct question. Direct questions often begin with an interrogative pronoun or adverb (who, when, what, etc.), and usually have an inverted word order, with the verb before the subject.

When did you study chemistry?
Do you ever wonder what your future will be?

Don't use a question mark after an indirect question. An indirect question is a statement implying a question but not actually asking one. Though the idea expressed is interrogative, the actual phrasing is not.

They asked me whether I had studied chemistry in high school.

He asked me whether I wished to make a good impression.

A polite request phrased as a direct question may sometimes be followed by a period rather than a question mark.

Won't you give me a call where you're ready to order.

Use the exclamation point after an interjection or after a statement that is genuinely emphatic or exclamatory.

Fire! Help!
What a horrible accident!

But don't overuse the exclamation point. One is enough. Used sparingly, the exclamation point gives real emphasis to individual statements. Overused, it either deadens the emphasis or introduces an almost hysterical tone in your writing.


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