fbpx

Punctuation serves the purposes of imparting coherence, lucidity, and emphasis to sentences. Punctuation marks are employed to arrange and structure your written work effectively.

The significance of punctuation becomes evident when attempting to read a text devoid of any punctuation, as exemplified below:

Maybe you don’t always require commas, periods, colons, and similar punctuation marks to ensure sentence clarity. In moments of haste, fatigue, chilliness, lethargy, or anger, I occasionally omit these punctuation marks. I find grammar to be unnecessary, believing I can write effectively without it. My uncle Harry once claimed he lacked intelligence, and I struggled to comprehend his written messages to me. I’ve decided that I should acquire some knowledge of punctuation, though not an excessive amount—just enough to correspond with Uncle Harry, who could benefit from some assistance.

Now, let’s observe whether adding punctuation alters its impact!

 

Maybe there are situations where you can forego employing commas, periods, colons, and similar punctuation marks to ensure sentence clarity. During moments of haste, fatigue, coldness, idleness, or anger, I occasionally omit these punctuation marks. My uncle Harry once declared, “Grammar is pointless! I can write proficiently without it, and it’s unnecessary.” He wasn’t particularly astute, and I always struggled to decipher his written messages to me. I believe I’ll acquaint myself with some punctuation—nothing excessive, just enough to correspond with Uncle Harry, who could benefit from assistance!

What is your English level?

Find out your A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2 level of English with our quick, free online test.

Punctuation rules in English

The period, full stop or point

The period, also referred to as a full stop in British English, is likely the most straightforward of all punctuation marks. It functions much like a knife, allowing you to trim sentences to the desired length. Typically, you can employ a full stop at the conclusion of a coherent and self-contained idea that appears correct and sounds appropriate to you.

Mark the end of a sentence which is not a question or an exclamation

Examples
  • Rome is the capital of Italy.
  • I was born in Australia and now live in Indonesia.
  • The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

Indicate an abbreviation

Many abbreviations require a period. Dr, Mr, Mrs, and Ms do not take a period in British English, nor do most abbreviations taken from the first capital letters such as MA, Phd, or CIA. In American English, some of these do require periods or both usages are correct (with and without periods). If you require 100% accuracy in your punctuation, refer to a detailed style guide for the abbreviation usage rules in the variety of English you are using.

Examples
  • I will arrive between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.
  • We are coming on Fri., Jan. 4.

Ellipsis

Often you will see a sentence concluding with three dots. This indicates that only part of the sentence or text has been quoted or that it is being left up to the reader to complete the thought.

Examples
  • The Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our Father which art in Heaven…”
  • He is always late, but you know how I feel about that…
Period after a single word

Sometimes a single word can form the sentence. In this case you place a fullstop after the word as you would in any other sentence. This is often the case when the subject is understood as in a greeting or a command.

Examples
  • “Goodbye.”
  • “Stop.”

Periods in numbers

Numbers use periods in English to separate the whole number from the decimal. A period used in a number is also called a “decimal point” and it is read “point” unless it refers to money.

Examples
  • $10.43 = ten dollars and 43 cents
  • 14.17 = fourteen point one seven

 

    The comma

    There exist certain fundamental guidelines for employing the comma. Nonetheless, in English, you will discover a plethora of additional approaches for utilizing the comma to contribute to a sentence’s significance or to underscore an element, idea, or significance.

    While we are frequently instructed that commas serve to introduce “pauses” within sentences, their primary function lies in structuring and organizing coherent thoughts or logical segments. The majority of individuals employ commas to maintain clarity of meaning, and, irrespective of grammatical regulations, they may omit a comma if the intended meaning remains intact without it.

    Separate phrases, words, or clauses in lists

    When compiling a list, commas are the prevalent means of distinguishing one item in the list from the next. Typically, the last two items in the list are set apart by “and” or “or,” and a comma precedes this conjunction. Within editorial circles, this concluding comma in a list is recognized as the “Oxford Comma.”

    A series of independent clauses (sentences)
    Examples
    • I met Harry, we went for a swim together, and afterwards Harry went home.
    • I like your son, I might even love him, but he is not a very good soccer player.
    A series of nouns
    Examples
    • For dinner I had soup, fish, chicken, dessert, and coffee.
    • This afternoon I went to Oxford Circus, Picadilly, Hamstead, and Gatwick Airport.
    A series of adjectives

    A list of adjectives usually requires commas. However, if an adjective is modifying another adjective you do not separate them with a comma (sentence 3).

    Examples
    • She was young, beautiful, kind, and intelligent.
    • The house we visited was dark, dreary, and run-down.
    • She was wearing a bright red shirt.
    A series of verbs
    Examples
    • Tony ran towards me, fell, yelled, and fainted.
    • The boy leapt, spun, twisted, and dove into the water.
    A series of phrases
    Examples
    • The car smashed into the wall, flipped onto its roof, slid along the road, and finally stopped against a tree.
    • The dog leapt into the air, snatched the frisbee in its mouth, landed, and ran off into the forest.

    Enclosing details

    Use a comma to enclose non-defining relative clauses and other non-essential details and comments. The comma is placed on either side of the insertion.

    Examples
    • China, one of the most powerful nations on Earth, has a huge population.
    • Jason’s grandmother, who was born in 1930, lived through the Second World War.
    • Cats, unlike dogs, do not respect their masters.
    • My friend, Jim, likes to go scuba diving.

    Participial phrases

    Examples
    • Hearing that her father was in hospital, Jane left work immediately.
    • Walking to the bus stop that morning, Sam knew it was going to be a special day.

    Tag questions

    Examples
    • She lives in Paris, doesn’t she?
    • We haven’t met, have we?

    Interjections

    Examples
    • Yes, I will stay a little longer, thank you.
    • No, he isn’t like other boys.
    • Wait, I didn’t mean to scare you.

    A final warning

    Putting a comma in the wrong place can lead to a sentence with a completely different meaning, look at these two sentences:
    I detest liars like you; I believe that honesty is the best policy. = I detest you because you are a liar.
    I detest liars, like you; I believe that honesty is the best policy. = You and I both detest liars.

    The exclamation mark

    The exclamation mark serves the purpose of conveying frustration, amazement, or astonishment, as well as accentuating a statement or a concise, emphatic expression. In formal or common writing, the use of exclamation marks is limited, if utilized at all.

    Examples
    • Help! Help!
    • That’s unbelievable!
    • Get out!
    • Look out!

    You can also use exclamation marks to mark a phrase as humourous, ironic or sarcastic.

    Examples
    • What a lovely day! (when it obviously is not a lovely day)
    • That was clever! (when someone has done something stupid)

    In extremely casual writing formats like SMS, chat, Twitter, Facebook, and so on, it’s occasionally seen that an exclamation mark is paired with a question mark to convey a mix of surprise and mild uncertainty. Employing double or triple exclamation marks is prevalent in highly informal writing styles but may be regarded as a sign of lack of education in more formal forms of communication.

    Examples of casual writing
    • He’s getting married!?
    • That’s insane!!!

    The question mark

    Use the question mark at the end of all direct questions.

    Test your knowledge

    Examples
    • What is your name?
    • Do you speak Italian?
    • You’re spanish, aren’t you?

    Do not use a question mark for reported questions

    Examples
    • He asked me what my name was.
    • She asked if I was Spanish.
    • Ask them where they are going.

    Long questions still need question marks

    Examples
    • Isn’t it true that global warming is responsible for more and more problems which are having a disastrous effect on the world’s climate and leading to many millions of people in countries that can least afford it having to contend with more and more hardship?
    • Why is it that even though you are unkind to me, ignore me when I ask you for help, and consistently forget to thank me when I do favors for you, you still claim to want me to be your friend and appear surprised when I prefer to hang out with other people?

    Question marks can sometimes appear within sentences

    Examples
    • There is cause for concern (isn’t there?) that the current world economic balance is so fragile that it may lead to a global economic downturn.
    • “Why is she here?” asked Henry.

    Are you C1 Advanced English?

    Get your C1 Advanced English certificate now!

    Add your certificate to your resume

    ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

    The colon

    The colon serves to elaborate upon the preceding sentence, frequently introducing a list that provides a demonstration or further explanation of the information previously conveyed.

    Examples
    • There are many reasons for poor written communication: lack of planning, poor grammar, misuse of punctuation marks, and insufficient vocabulary.
    • He collected a strange assortment of items: bird’s eggs, stamps, bottle tops, string, and buttons.
    • Peter had an eclectic taste in music: latin, jazz, country and western, pop, blues, and classical.
    • He had just one fault: an enormous ego.

    The colon is also used to divide the hour from the minutes in writing a time in English.

    Examples
    • 4:15 = “four fifteen”
    • 6:45 = “six forty-five”

    The semicolon

    The semicolon falls midway between a full stop and a comma. In English, semicolons are employed to connect related phrases and sentences without the need for a conjunction, as shown in example 1 below. Additionally, semicolons can replace commas when separating items in a list, especially when the items themselves include commas, as demonstrated in example 2 below.

    Examples
    • I like your brother; he’s a good friend.
    • Many great leaders, Churchill, leader of Britain during the Second World War; Alexander, the great Emperor and general; and Napolean, the brilliant French general, had strong characters, which were useful when their countries were at war but which did not serve them well in times of peace.

    Quotation marks

    Utilize quotation marks to directly quote something that someone has said. When paraphrasing or rephrasing what someone has conveyed to you, quotation marks are not necessary.

    Examples
    • “I’m going to the store now,” she said.
    • Harry told me, “Don’t forget your soccer jersey.”
    • Harry told me not to forget my soccer jersey.

    If quoting others within a quote, both single and double quotation marks are used to set the two separate quotations off from each other.

    Example

    ‘I haven’t spoken to Peter for months,’ Dianne said.’The last time I spoke to him he said, “I’m going to Bahrain and won’t be back for about three years”, I’ve heard nothing since then’.

    You may see single or double quotation marks used to mark out idiomatic or unfamiliar expressions

    Examples
    • I’ve always thought that he was very annoying, a bit of a ‘pain in the neck.’
    • I’m not sure what you mean by “custodial care”, but I’m sure you will explain it to me.

    Both single and double quotation marks have distinct roles in bibliographic references and source citations within academic writing. Various methods exist for structuring bibliographies, each adhering to established formats. Most institutions and academic entities tend to favor one of these formats or have their unique guidelines outlined in a “style guide.”

    Example
    • “The Migration Flight of the Lesser Tweazle”, by Jeremey Adams, The Bird Spotter Magazine, July 2009.

    The apostrophe

    The apostrophe is likely responsible for more confusion than all other punctuation marks combined! The issue often arises from a lack of comprehension regarding the fact that the apostrophe serves two distinct (and highly significant) purposes in English: denoting possession and forming contractions.

    The apostrophe in contractions

    The predominant application of apostrophes in English is in contractions, wherein a noun or pronoun merges with a verb. Keep in mind that the apostrophe typically substitutes for a omitted letter, and it is positioned where that missing letter would have been.

    Type Without contractions Contractions
    Using “not” is not, has not, had not, did not, would not, can not isn’t, hasn’t, hadn’t, didn’t, wouldn’t, can’t
    Using “is” she is, there is, he is, it is, Mary is, Jim is, Germany is, who is she’s, there’s, he’s, it’s, Mary’s, Jim’s, Germany’s, who’s
    Using “am” I am I’m
    Using “will” I will, you will, she will, we will, they will I’ll, you’ll, she’ll, we’ll, they’ll
    Using “would” I would, you would, he would, we would, they would I’d, you’d, he’d, we’d, they’d
    Using “have” I have, you have, we have, they have I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve
    Using “are” you are, they are, we are you’re, they’re, we’re

    People, even native English speakers, often mistake its and it’s, you’re and your, who’s and whose, and they’re, their and there. See below for the difference.

    Examples
    • It’s a nice day outside. (contraction)
    • The cat is dirty. Its fur is matted. (possession)
    • You’re not supposed to be here. (contraction)
    • This is your book. (possession)
    • Who’s at the door? (contraction)
    • Whose shoes are these? (possession)
    • They’re not here yet. (contraction)
    • Their car is red. (possession)
    • His car is over there. (location)

    The possessive apostrophe

    In most cases you simply need to add ‘s to a noun to show possession

    Examples
    • a ship’s captain
    • a doctor’s patient
    • a car’s engine
    • Ibrahim’s coat
    • Mirianna’s book

    Plural nouns that do not end in s also follow this rule:

    Examples
    • the children’s room
    • the men’s work
    • the women’s club

    Ordinary (or common) nouns that end in s, both singular and plural, show possession simply by adding an apostrophe after the s.

    Examples
    • the bus’ wheel
    • the babies’ crying
    • the ladies’ tennis club
    • the teachers’ journal

    Proper nouns, such as names of individuals, cities, and countries, concluding with the letter “s,” have the option to create the possessive form by either appending the apostrophe followed by “s” or solely using the apostrophe. Presently, both approaches, like “Jones’s” or “Jones’,” are considered acceptable, and numerous prominent organizations now opt to omit the apostrophe entirely (e.g., Barclays Bank, Missing Persons Bureau) when presenting their name.

    Examples
    • The Hughes’ home (or the Hughes’s home)
    • Mr Jones’s shop (or Mr Jones’ shop)
    • Charles’ book (or Charles’s book)

    Hyphens and dashes

    A hyphen connects two or more words, whereas a dash isolates words within parenthetical statements. These two punctuation marks may be mistaken for one another due to their visual similarity, but their purposes differ. Hyphens do not include spaces between them, whereas a dash is surrounded by spaces on both sides.

    Hyphens

    Typically, hyphens are employed to unite two words or segments of words in order to prevent any potential confusion or ambiguity. If you are uncertain whether a compound word requires a hyphen, it is advisable to refer to your dictionary. However, keep in mind that contemporary usage may have evolved since the publication of your dictionary.

    Examples
    • run-down
    • up-to-date

    Hyphens are utilized in specific instances to enhance written clarity, particularly in situations involving letter combinations, the addition of a prefix, or when denoting family relationships. Many words that were hyphenated in the past have now undergone a change, dropping the hyphen and evolving into single words (e.g., “email” nowadays).

    Examples
    • co-operate
    • bell-like
    • anti-nuclear
    • post-colonial
    • great-grandmother
    • son-in-law

    In some cases though, a hyphen does change the meaning of a sentence.

    Example
    • I am thinking of re-covering my sofa (= to put a new cover on it)
    • I would like to recover my sofa. (= from someone who has borrowed or stolen it)
    Hyphens in numbers

    Use a hyphen with compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

    Examples
    • fifty-one
    • eighty-nine
    • thirty-two
    • sixty-five

    In written fractions place a hyphen between the numerator and denominator except if there is already a hyphen in either the numerator or the denominator.

    Examples
    • two-fifths
    • one-third
    • three-tenths
    • nine-hundredths
    • sixty-nine eighty-ninths

    Use a hyphen when a number forms part of an adjectival compound

    Examples
    • France has a 35-hour working week.
    • He won the 100-metre sprint.
    • Charles Dickens was a great nineteenth-century novelist.

    Dashes

    Dashes can be employed to introduce parenthetical statements or remarks, similar to how brackets are used. In formal writing, it is advisable to use brackets instead of dashes, as dashes are perceived as less formal. Dashes can also be utilized to emphasize a particular point within a sentence.

    Examples
    • You may think she is a liar – she isn’t.
    • She might come to the party – you never know.

    Brackets and parentheses

    The distinction between ‘brackets’ and ‘parentheses’ can be somewhat perplexing. Typically, ‘parentheses’ pertain to round brackets ( ) and ‘brackets’ signify square brackets [ ]. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly common to simply refer to them as ’round brackets’ or ‘square brackets.’

    Square brackets [ ] are commonly employed for specific purposes, particularly in technical manuals. Round brackets ( ), on the other hand, serve a similar function to commas when we intend to include supplementary explanations, afterthoughts, or comments that are related to our primary train of thought but distinct from it. Many grammar experts believe that parentheses can, in fact, be substituted with commas in nearly all instances.

    Examples
    • The government’s education report (April 2005) shows that the level of literacy is rising in nearly all areas.
    • I visited Kathmandu (which was full of tourists) on my way to the Himalayas for a trekking expedition.
    • You can eat almost anything while travelling in Asia if you are careful to observe simple rules (avoiding unboiled or unbottled water is one of the main rules to be aware of.)

    What is your English level?

    Find out your A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 C2 level of English with our quick, free online test.