Rules for Using Punctuation in English

girl notebook writing punctuation

We learn English online to help us with our written and spoken communication. One of the most important parts of written English is punctuation. However, people can become very hung up on punctuation rules. The most important rule to remember is that punctuation is there to help the writer make their meaning clearer.

When we speak, we use intonation, pauses, body language and volume to help make our listeners understand what we want to say. When we write, we use punctuation for the same purpose.

When to use punctuation, and which type to use, can be confusing; here we look briefly at each example, then expand with more details and examples of the punctuation type’s use.

Types of Punctuation

The table below lists the types of punctuation used in English. It shows what each punctuation mark looks like and explains its purpose in a sentence.

Mark SymbolPurpose
Full Stop.Called a period in the US, the full stop marks the end of a sentence. It suggests a long pause in the writing.
Comma,A comma has two purposes; it can break up a sentence with a short pause between phrases and clauses, or be used to separate items in a list.
Question Mark?This ends a sentence that is a question.
Exclamation Mark!This is a way of showing that the sentence has drama, for example, surprise, anger, annoyance.
Colon:Two uses for a colon. It is used to introduce a list, quotation or, sometimes, speech. Here, it suggests the speech is more important than usual. Or it can be used to show that the second clause in a sentence follows, or explains, the first.
Semi Colon;Again, a semi colon can be used in two ways. It separates items in a list, where each item is made up from several words. More complicatedly, it works to show a pause in a sentence which is greater than a comma, but less than a full stop. This will be where there are two clauses of equal importance next to each other.
ApostropheThere are two, unrelated, apostrophes. The Possessive Apostrophe demonstrates when one noun belongs to another. The Contraction Apostrophe is used to show when letters are missed out.
Speech MarksThese are used to show when words are either directly said, or directly quoted. Speech marks can be single or double, but frame the spoken or quoted words.
Parenthesis( )

, ,

There are three kinds of parentheses – brackets, commas and dashes. These surround extra information in a sentence.
EllipsesThe ellipses have two purposes. Mostly, it is used to indicate a cliff hanger at the end of a sentence. It is also used to show that words have been missed out of a quote or direct speech.
HyphenThese are used to create a noun made up of two parts. They are gradually diminishing in use.

More Detail and Examples with Punctuation Marks

  1. Full Stop, Question Mark and Exclamation Mark

We cheered on our team at the football stadium.

Who won the game?

They won at last!

These three punctuation marks are, along with the ellipses, sentence enders. A sentence is a unit of meaning. It can be as small as one word (a sentence with special emphasis, for example: The family enjoyed my apple pie. Phew. Here, relief is indicated by the one word ‘Phew.’; with an exclamation mark, surprise would be indicated. A question mark would indicate that the audience has doubt about the outcome. It can be seen that punctuation marks which end sentences are there to help us understand the meaning intended by the writer.

  1. Comma

We need to buy apples, flour, sugar and butter to make our apple pie.

In a list, a comma is used to separate each item except for the final two, which are usually separated with the connective ‘and’. However, there is one exception. If the final item in the list is meant to be emphasised, because it carries importance in the sentence, then the Oxford comma is used (before the ‘and’): He visited his parents, his sister, his brother, and his mother in law.

After the match, we went for a drink in the pub.

In normal use, the comma indicates a pause in the sentence. Usually, it separates clauses.

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  1. Colon

I heard the commentator say: ‘Goaaaaallll!’

Introducing a quote or speech is a technical use of the colon.

I took my umbrella to the game: I did not want to get wet.

Separating two clauses is for effect, to emphasise meaning. The colon introduces a pause into the sentence, which in turn, adds emphasis to the second half of the sentence.

  1. Semi Colon

When we make our ice cream we need: some vanilla pods or essence; a tub of fresh, double cream; some caster sugar; four medium eggs and a pint of milk.

The semi colon is rarely used for emphasis, but adds clarity to a list.

I took my umbrella; the forecast was for rain.

When separating two clauses, because the pause is shorter than for a colon, the second half does not carry additional emphasis.

  1. Possessive Apostrophe

My team’s centre forward scored.

How long with the apostrophe last? Its only function is to tell the reader whether the subject of a clause is singular or plural.

  1. Contraction Apostrophe

I didn’t expect that!

Again, the apostrophe is for clarity. The use of text speak is beginning to render it redundant. But not yet!

  1. Speech Marks (sometimes called quotation marks)

“Yes, yes, yes,” I screamed “It’s there!”

All words AND punctuation that is directly quoted, or said, sits within the speech marks. The only reason for single and double speech marks is to identify speech within speech. For example. “My favourite quote,” said John “is ‘To be or not to be,” from Hamlet.” However, although both forms are correct, they should be used consistently within a particular piece of writing.

  1. Parentheses

Johnson (aged 43) is the oldest scorer in the league’s history.

The three forms of parentheses are largely interchangeable. Technically, the brackets simply add information, the dashes add information in a more emotive way and the commas surround a subordinate clause. No native English speaker would object to whichever form the writer chooses.

  1. Ellipses

He dribbles, he crosses, the centre forward rises and…

Note…three dots! Not four or two!

The interview was quite long: ‘The boss spoke for ages…we won!’

This use of the ellipses should be for convenience of the reader, and writer, but should not change the meaning of a quote or piece of speech.

  1. Hyphen

Thanks to their win, the team’s self-confidence grew.

The hyphen is another mark beginning to become redundant. It is used when two separate words are combined to create a noun. However, a quick look in Word spellchecker shows that increasingly words can be written with or without the hyphen.

Punctuation is a terrific tool. It brings the written word to life and helps to communicate writers’ meanings and intentions. Some pieces have retained their technical use (for example, the semi colon and the apostrophe). Mostly, though, punctuation should be used (sparingly) to help communicate what we want to say.

Similar article: Writing great business letters in English

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