Grammar and Punctuation

A, An  I Acronyms  I Colon  I  Comma  I  Courtesy Titles and Honorifics  I  Dashes  I  Essential and Non-Essential Phrases  I  Italics and Quotation Marks  I  Middle Initials and Middle Names  I  Order  I  Periods  I  Plurals and Possessives  I  Pronoun Agreement  I  Quality  I Spelling  I  That/Which  I  Time

A, An

In referring to an abbreviation or acronym, use the appropriate article for the way the abbreviation is spoken, not spelled. Thus: an M.F.A., an M.S., an FBI agent.


Although many people use acronyms in speech and internal publications, writers should not use acronyms in University publications (print and online) except for those commonly used both inside and outside the University community (such as NASA and the FBI). If an acronym must be used to spare readers confusion, spell out the full name on the first mention, with the acronym in parentheses following.

Acronyms are made plural by adding an “s” at the end if there are no periods in the acronym and adding “’s” if there are periods in the acronym.



The most frequent use of a colon is at the end of a sentence to introduce lists, tabulations, texts, etc. A colon should not be used to introduce a list that is the complement or object of an element in the introductory statement.

  • The committee includes Art, Lisa, and Mark.
  • The following people are on the committee: Art, Lisa, and Mark.

If a full sentence follows a colon, the first word of that sentence should be capitalized.

  • The resulting data cache was immense: Instruments on the aircraft measure a few dozen variables.


Use a comma before the final “and” in a series.

  • I am taking courses in history, English, and creative writing.

Use a semicolon to separate the elements in a series if the elements contain commas.

  • He leaves a son, John Smith; a daughter, Jane Smith; and three grandchildren.

Use a comma before Jr., Sr., II, III, etc.

  • John Doe, Jr.

Use a comma after names of states and nations used with city names.

  • She traveled from Dublin, Ireland, to Washington, D.C., and back.

Do not use a comma between the season and the year, or between the month and the year unless you use the day. Use a comma after the year when the date comes within a sentence.

  • June 22, 1989, was her birthday.

Courtesy Titles and Honorifics

Use a person’s first and last names on first reference, but only the last name on subsequent references. Do not use courtesy titles such as Mrs., Ms., or Dr. in text. In general, avoid use of honorifics, with the exception of President and Provost. These rules do not apply to letter writing, or in some formal announcements generated by the Office of Communications (such as appointments).


Em dashes (exp: —) may be used, in certain circumstances, to replace commas, parentheses, or colons, and to enhance readability. Em dashes should be used without extra spaces on either side, as in this example:

  • Great ideas spark new approaches—and more new ideas—when they are tested by conversation and forged in collaboration.

En dashes (exp: –)  may be used to represent a span or range of numbers, dates, or time, or to report scores or reflect connections. En dashes should be used with a space on either side, as in these examples:

  • Date range: The 2010 – 2011 season was our best yet.
  • Time range: See Time section below.
  • Scores: UMBC beat Towson 28 – 14 in the final game of the regular season.
  • Connections: The Los Angeles – London flight.

Essential and Non-Essential Phrases

An essential phrase is a word or group of words critical to the reader’s understanding. Do not set it off from the rest of the sentence by commas.

  • We’re reading the award-winning book Provincial Families of the Renaissance.

A non-essential phrase provides more information about something but the reader would not be misled if the information were not there.

  • We’re reading the winner of the 1997 Marraro Prize, Provincial Families of the Renaissance.

Italics and Quotation Marks

In general, the title of a complete work is notated using italics. The title of a part of a complete work is notated using quotation marks.

Italics are used for:

  • Movie titles
  • Plays
  • Books
  • Newspaper and magazine titles
  • Music albums
  • Gallery exhibits

When you make an italicized word plural or possessive (name of a magazine, book, etc.), make only the name italic. The s or ’s should be in roman type.

  • It is The Washington Post’s view that the bill should not be passed.

Quotation marks are used for:

  • Song titles
  • Lecture titles
  • Grant names
  • Brochures, pamphlets
  • Chapters or article names

Please used the curved quotation marks (“ ”), not the straight up and down versions (” “)

Commas go within the quotation marks; dashes, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points go inside the quotation marks if they apply to the quoted matter, outside if they apply to the whole sentence.

The period goes inside the quote at the end of a sentence.

In running quotations, each new paragraph should begin with open quotation marks.


Middle Initials and Middle Names

These are not necessary unless specifically requested. Many lists, such as the President’s Board of Visitors, include them. Whatever you do, be consistent.


Avoid random ordering of names or lists, instead defaulting to alphabetical order, or order based on rank.

  • Anne, Barbara, Clara, Diane, etc.
  • The president, provost, vice presidents, and faculty…


Within a paragraph of text, use only one space between a period and the next sentence.

Use periods when listing exact times.

  • The party will begin at 1 p.m.

Plurals and Possessives

Add ‘s to plural nouns not ending in s.

  • children’s, women’s, alumni’s

Add apostrophe only to plural nouns ending in s.

  • The USM campuses’ policies…

Add ‘s to singular nouns not ending in s. If a singular noun ends in s, add only the apostrophe.

  • The UMBC campus’ policies…

Regents Professor is plural; no apostrophe is used.

Certain degrees that are not possessive use apostrophes:

  • master’s degree in human centered computing
  • bachelor’s degree in psychology

Pronoun Agreement

A company or university is not a person and is not plural. Do not use “they” or “who” when referring to a company or university. Use “it” or “that” or “which.”


The word quality should always be qualified because failing to do so leaves open the question of degree. For clarity, use high-quality as an adjective.


Name spellings are important. For special occasions (especially awards, nameplates, feature stories, and anything else related to VIPs and fundraising), they are crucial. The authority on a person’s name is the person. If in doubt, call the office, department, or the person directly to verify faculty, staff, and student names. If unavailable, consult a business card, printed letterhead, resume, personal agent, or other reliable source. Do not rely upon a newspaper, magazine article, or the internet for name spellings.


Use “that” to introduce a restrictive clause — that is, a clause that is essential to the meaning of the noun it modifies and will change the meaning if you leave it out. Do not precede the clause with a comma.

  • I want a copy of the book that just came out.

Use “which” for clauses that can be omitted, and set these clauses off with commas.

  • I want a copy of your most recent book, which I’ll read tonight.

Use “who/whom” — not “that/which” — if you are referring to a person.


Lowercase should be used for a.m. and p.m. with periods between letters, and a space between the numeral and the a.m./p.m. When a time falls on the hour, omit the zeros.

  • Use: 8 p.m.
  • Not: 8:00 p.m.
  • Not: 8p.m.

Use noon and midnight instead of 12 a.m. and 12 p.m.

For time ranges, use an en dash, not an em dash, with a space on each side.

  • Use: 2 – 4 p.m., or 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.
  • Not: 2—4 p.m., or 9—2 p.m.

If you are introducing a time range using the words from or between, do not use a hyphen or en dash, but instead use to, as in this example:

  • Correct: She served as secretary of state from 1996 to 1999.
    Incorrect: She served as secretary of state from 1996-1999.