Why do we need punctuation?
Punctuation marks are essential when you are writing. They show the reader where sentences start and finish and if they are used properly they make your writing easy to understand. This section gives practical guidance on how to use commas, semicolons, and other types of punctuation correctly, so that your writing will always be clear and effective.
You may find some aspects of punctuation harder to grasp than others (for example, when to use a semicolon or a colon). If so, just click on the relevant heading in the list to the left. There are also handy sections with advice on using punctuation when writing direct speech, lists, or abbreviations.
Types of punctuation
- full stop
- inverted commas
- exclamation mark
- question mark
- bullet point
Full stops are used:
to mark the end of a sentence that is a complete statement:
My name’s Beth and I was 18 in July.
After leaving school, she went to work in an insurance company.
to mark the end of a group of words that don’t form a conventional sentence, so as to emphasize a statement:
I keep reliving that moment. Over and over again.
in some abbreviations, for example etc., Dec., or p.m.:
The coffee morning will be held on Thursday 15 Sept. in the Waterfront Restaurant.
There’s a wide range of sandwiches, pies, cakes, etc. at very reasonable prices.
in website and email addresses:
If an abbreviation with a full stop comes at the end of a sentence you don’t need to add another full stop:
Bring your own pens, pencils, rulers, etc.
See more advice about how to write abbreviations.
A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. Many people are uncertain about the use of commas, though, and often sprinkle them throughout their writing without knowing the basic rules.
Here are the main cases when you need to use a comma:
You need to put a comma between the different items in a list, as in the following sentences:
Saturday morning started with a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and French toast.
The school has a vegetable garden in which the children grow cabbages, onions, potatoes, and carrots.
The final comma in these lists (before the word ‘and’) is known as the ‘serial comma’. Not all writers or publishers use it, but it is used by Oxford Dictionaries – some people refer to it as ‘the Oxford comma’. Using it can make your meaning clearer. Take a look at this sentence:
My favourite sandwiches are chicken, bacon and ham and cheese.
It isn’t entirely clear from this sentence whether the writer is listing three or four of their favourite sandwich fillings: is ‘ham’ one of their favourites and ‘cheese’ another, or is it ‘ham and cheese’ that they like? Adding an Oxford comma makes the meaning clear:
My favourite sandwiches are chicken, bacon, and ham and cheese.
When a writer quotes a speaker’s words exactly as they were spoken, this is known as direct speech. If the piece of direct speech comes after the information about who is speaking, you need to use a comma to introduce the direct speech. The comma comes before the first quotation mark. Note that the final quotation mark follows the full stop at the end of the direct speech:
Steve replied, ‘No problem.’
You also need to use a comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, if the speech comes before the information about who is speaking. In this case, the comma goes inside the quotation mark:
‘I don’t agree,’ I replied.
‘Here we are,' they said.
There are two exceptions to this rule. If a piece of direct speech takes the form of a question or an exclamation, you should end it with a question mark or an exclamation mark, rather than a comma:
‘Stop him!’ she shouted.
‘Did you see that?’ he asked.
Direct speech is often broken up by the information about who is speaking. In these cases, you need a comma to end the first piece of speech (inside the quotation mark) and another comma before the second piece (before the quotation mark):
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and I always keep my promises.’
‘Thinking back,’ she added, ‘I didn’t expect to win.’
See more about Punctuation in direct speech.
Commas are used to separate clauses in a complex sentence (i.e. a sentence which is made up of a main clause and one or more subordinate clauses).
The following examples show the use of commas in two complex sentences:
Having had lunch,
we went back to work.
I first saw her in Paris,
where I lived in the early nineties.
If the commas were removed, these sentences wouldn’t be as clear but the meaning would still be the same. There are different types of subordinate clause, though, and in some types the use of commas can be very important.
A subordinate clause beginning with ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘that’, ‘whom’, or ‘where’ is known as a relative clause. Take a look at this example:
who have young children
may board the aircraft first.
This sentence contains what’s known as a ‘restrictive relative clause’. Basically, a restrictive relative clause contains information that’s essential to the meaning of the sentence as a whole. If you left it out, the sentence wouldn’t make much sense. If we removed the relative clause from the example above, then the whole point of that sentence would be lost and we’d be left with the rather puzzling statement:
Passengers may board the aircraft first.
You should not put commas round a restrictive relative clause.
The other type of subordinate clause beginning with ‘who’, ‘which’, ‘whom’, etc. is known as a ‘non-restrictive relative clause’. A non-restrictive relative clause contains information that is not essential to the overall meaning of a sentence. Take a look at the following example:
who has two young children,
has a part-time job in the library.
If you remove this clause, the meaning of the sentence isn’t affected and it still makes perfect sense. All that’s happened is that we’ve lost a bit of extra information about Mary:
Mary has a part-time job in the library.
You need to put a comma both before and after a non-restrictive relative clause.
Commas are used to separate a part of a sentence that is an optional ‘aside’ and not part of the main statement.
Gunpowder is not, of course, a chemical compound.
His latest film, Calypso Dreams, opens next month.
In these sentences, the role of the commas is similar to their function in non-restrictive relative clauses: they mark off information that isn’t essential to the overall meaning. Using commas in this way can really help to clarify the meaning of a sentence. Take a look at this example:
Cynthia’s daughter, Sarah, is a midwife.
The writer’s use of commas tells us that Cynthia has only one daughter. If you removed Sarah’s name from the sentence, there would still be no doubt as to who was the midwife:
Cynthia’s daughter is a midwife.
If you rewrite the original sentence without commas its meaning changes:
Cynthia’s daughter Sarah is a midwife.
The lack of commas tells us that the name ‘Sarah’ is crucial to the understanding of the sentence. It shows that Cynthia has more than one daughter, and so the name of the one who is a midwife needs to be specified for the meaning to be clear.
If you aren’t sure whether you’ve used a pair of commas correctly, try replacing them with brackets or removing the information enclosed by the commas altogether, and then see if the sentence is still understandable, or if it still conveys the meaning you intended.
The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences, as in these two examples:
The road runs through a beautiful wooded valley; the railway line follows it.
An art director searched North Africa; I went to the Canary Islands.
You can also use a semicolon as a stronger division in a sentence that already contains commas:
The study showed the following: 76% of surveyed firms monitor employee Web-surfing activities, with 65% blocking access to unauthorized Internet locations; over one-third of the firms monitor employee computer keystrokes; half reported storing and reviewing employee emails; 57% monitor employee telephone behaviour, including the inappropriate use of voicemail.
There are three main uses of the colon:
between two main clauses in cases where the second clause explains or follows from the first:
That is the secret of my extraordinary life: always do the unexpected.
It wasn’t easy: to begin with, I had to find the right house.
to introduce a list:
The price includes the following: travel to London, flight to Venice, hotel accommodation, and excursions.
The job calls for skills in the following areas: proofing, editing, and database administration.
before a quotation, and sometimes before direct speech:
The headline read: ‘Taxi Driver Battles Gangsters’.
They shouted: ‘Our families are starving! We need land!’
Are you uncertain about when to use an apostrophe? Many people have difficulty with this punctuation mark. The best way to get apostrophes right is to understand when and why they are used. There are two main cases – click on the links below to find straightforward guidance:
People are often unsure about whether they should use its (without an apostrophe) or it’s (with an apostrophe). For information about this, you can go straight to the section it's or its?
You use an apostrophe to show that a thing or person belongs or relates to someone or something: instead of saying the party of Ben or the weather of yesterday, you can write Ben’s party and yesterday’s weather.
Here are the main guidelines for using apostrophes to show possession:
Singular nouns and most personal names
With a singular noun or most personal names: add an apostrophe plus s:
We met at Ben’s party.
The dog’s tail wagged rapidly.
Yesterday’s weather was dreadful.
Personal names that end in –s
With personal names that end in -s: add an apostrophe plus s when you would naturally pronounce an extra s if you said the word out loud:
He joined Charles’s army in 1642.
Dickens's novels provide a wonderful insight into Victorian England.
Thomas's brother was injured in the accident.
Note that there are some exceptions to this rule, especially in names of places or organizations, for example:
St Thomas’ Hospital
If you aren’t sure about how to spell a name, look it up in an official place such as the organization’s website.
With personal names that end in -s but are not spoken with an extra s: just add an apostrophe after the -s:
The court dismissed Bridges' appeal.
Connors' finest performance was in 1991.
Plural nouns that end in –s
With a plural noun that already ends in -s: add an apostrophe after the s:
The mansion was converted into a girls’ school.
The work is due to start in two weeks’ time.
My duties included cleaning out the horses’ stables.
Plural nouns that do not end in -s
With a plural noun that doesn’t end in –s: add an apostrophe plus s:
The children’s father came round to see me.
He employs 14 people at his men’s clothing store.
The only cases in which you do not need an apostrophe to show belonging is in the group of words called possessive pronouns - these are the words his, hers, ours, yours, theirs (meaning ‘belonging to him, her, us, you, or them’) - and with the possessive determiners. These are the words his, hers, its, our, your, their (meaning 'belonging to or associated with him, her, it, us, you, or them'). See also it's or its?
An apostrophe can be used to show that letters or numbers have been omitted. Here are some examples of apostrophes that indicate missing letters:
I’m - short for I am
he’ll - short for he will
she’d – short for she had or she would
pick ‘n’ mix - short for pick and mix
it’s hot - short for it is hot
didn’t - short for did not
It also shows that numbers have been omitted, especially in dates, e.g. the Berlin Wall came down in the autumn of ’89 (short for 1989).
These two words can cause a lot of confusion: many people are uncertain about whether or not to use an apostrophe. These are the rules to remember:
its (without an apostrophe) means ‘belonging to it’:
The dog wagged its tail.
Each case is judged on its own merits.
it’s (with an apostrophe) means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’:
It’s been a long day.
It’s cold outside.
It’s a comfortable car and it’s got some great gadgets.
The general rule is that you should not use an apostrophe to form the plurals of nouns, abbreviations, or dates made up of numbers: just add -s (or -es, if the noun in question forms its plural with -es). For example:
(e.g. The cost of the trip is 570 euros.)
(e.g. Traditional Italian pizzas are thin and crisp.)
(e.g. She buys big bags of organic apples and carrots.)
(e.g. Local MPs are divided on this issue.)
(e.g. The situation was different in the 1990s.)
It's very important to remember this grammatical rule.
There are one or two cases in which it is acceptable to use an apostrophe to form a plural, purely for the sake of clarity:
you can use an apostrophe to show the plurals of single letters:
I've dotted the i's and crossed the t's.
Find all the p's in appear.
you can use an apostrophe to show the plurals of single numbers:
Find all the number 7’s.
These are the only cases in which it is generally considered acceptable to use an apostrophe to form plurals: remember that an apostrophe should never be used to form the plural of ordinary nouns, names, abbreviations, or numerical dates.
Hyphens are used to link words and parts of words. They are not as common today as they used to be, but there are three main cases where you should use them:
Hyphens are used in many compound words to show that the component words have a combined meaning (e.g. a pick-me-up, mother-in-law, good-hearted) or that there is a relationship between the words that make up the compound: for example, rock-forming minerals are minerals that form rocks. But you don’t need to use them in every type of compound word.
Compound adjectives are made up of a noun + an adjective, a noun + a participle, or an adjective + a participle. Many compound adjectives should be hyphenated. Here are some examples:
noun + adjective
noun + participle
|adjective + participle|
With compound adjectives formed from the adverb well and a participle (e.g. well-known), or from a phrase (e.g. up-to-date), you should use a hyphen when the compound comes before the noun:
well-known brands of coffee
an up-to-date account
but not when the compound comes after the noun:
His music was also well known in England.
Their figures are up to date.
It’s important to use hyphens in compound adjectives describing ages and lengths of time: leaving them out can make the meaning ambiguous. For example, 250-year-old trees clearly refers to trees that are 250 years old, while 250 year old trees could equally refer to 250 trees that are all one year old.
Use a hyphen when a compound formed from two nouns is made into a verb, for example:
an ice skate
a booby trap
a spot check
a court martial
You should NOT put a hyphen within phrasal verbs - verbs made up of a main verb and an adverb or preposition. For example:
You should continue to build up your pension.
They broke in by forcing a lock on the door.
We stopped off in Hawaii on the way home.
If a phrasal verb is made into a noun, though, you SHOULD use a hyphen:
There was a build-up of traffic on the ring road.
The house was unoccupied at the time of the break-in.
We knew there would be a stop-off in Singapore for refuelling.
A compound noun is one consisting of two component nouns. In principle, such nouns can be written in one of three different ways:
In the past, these sorts of compounds were usually hyphenated, but the situation is different today. The tendency is now to write them as either one word or two separate words. However, the most important thing to note is that you should choose one style and stick to it within a piece of writing. Don’t refer to a playgroup in one paragraph and a play-group in another.
Hyphens can be used to join a prefix to another word, especially if the prefix ends in a vowel and the other word also begins with one (e.g. pre-eminent or co-own). This use is less common than it used to be, though, and one-word forms are becoming more usual (e.g. prearrange or cooperate).
Use a hyphen to separate a prefix from a name or date, e.g. post-Aristotelian or pre-1900.
Use a hyphen to avoid confusion with another word: for example, to distinguish re-cover (= provide something with a new cover) from recover (= get well again).
Hyphens can also be used to divide words that are not usually hyphenated.
They show where a word is to be divided at the end of a line of writing. Always try to split the word in a sensible place, so that the first part does not mislead the reader: for example, hel-met not he-lmet; dis-abled not disa-bled.
Hyphens are also used to stand for a common second element in all but the last word of a list, e.g.:
You may see a yield that is two-, three-, or fourfold.
A dash is used:
in pairs, to mark off information or ideas that are not essential to an understanding of the rest of the sentence:
Thousands of children – like the girl in this photograph – have been left homeless.
My son – where has he gone? – would like to meet you.
to show other kinds of break in a sentence where a comma, semicolon, or colon would be traditionally used:
One thing’s for sure – he doesn’t want to face the truth.
Things have changed a lot in the last year – mainly for the better.
Dashes are especially common in informal writing, such as personal emails or blogs, but it’s best to use them sparingly when you are writing formally.
There are two main types of brackets.
Round brackets (also called parentheses) are mainly used to separate off information that isn’t essential to the meaning of the rest of the sentence. If you removed the bracketed material the sentence would still make perfectly good sense. For example:
Mount Everest (8,848 m) is the highest mountain in the world.
There are several books on the subject (see page 120).
He coined the term ‘hypnotism’ (from the Greek word hypnos meaning 'sleep') and practised it frequently.
They can also be used to enclose a comment by the person writing:
He’d clearly had too much to drink (not that I blamed him).
Square brackets are mainly used to enclose words added by someone other than the original writer or speaker, typically in order to clarify the situation:
He [the police officer] can’t prove they did it.
If round or square brackets are used at the end of a sentence, the full stop should be placed outside the closing bracket:
They eventually decided to settle in the United States (Debbie's home).
Inverted commas can be single - ‘x’ - or double - ‘’x‘’. They are also known as quotation marks, speech marks, or quotes.
Inverted commas are mainly used in the following cases:
to mark the beginning and end of direct speech (i.e. a speaker’s words written down exactly as they were spoken):
‘That,’ he said, ‘is nonsense.’
‘What time will he arrive?’ she asked.
See more information about how to use punctuation when you’re writing direct speech.
to mark off a word or phrase that’s being discussed, or that’s being directly quoted from somewhere else:
He called this phenomenon ‘the memory of water’.
What does ‘integrated circuit’ mean?
Single or double?
There’s no rule about which to use but you should stick to one or the other throughout a piece of writing. Single inverted commas are generally more common in British English while American English tends to prefer double ones.
If you find that you need to enclose quoted material within direct speech or another quotation, use the style you haven’t used already. So, if you’ve been using single inverted commas, put any further quoted material within double ones and vice versa. For example:
She still sounds amazed when she says: ‘We were turned down because “we represented too small a minority of the population”. They could still get away with saying things like that then.’
The main use of the exclamation mark is to end sentences that express:
Ow! That hurt!
Hello! How are you?
direct speech that represents something shouted or spoken very loudly:
‘Look up there!’ she yelled.
something that amuses the writer:
Included on the list of banned items was 'crochet hooks'!
An exclamation mark can also be used in brackets after a statement to show that the writer finds it funny or ironic:
She says she’s stopped feeling insecure (!) since she met him.
People tend to use a lot of exclamation marks in informal writing such as emails or text messages, but you should avoid using them in formal writing.
A question mark is used to indicate the end of a question:
Have you seen the film yet?
Note that you don’t use a question mark at the end of a question in reported speech:
He asked if I had seen the film yet.
A question mark can also be used in brackets to show that the writer is unconvinced by a statement:
I’m about to get started on the new project, which is apparently quite straightforward (?).
Bullet points are used to draw attention to important information within a document so that a reader can identify the key issues and facts quickly. There are no fixed rules about how to use them, but here are some guidelines.
- The text introducing the list of bullet points should end with a colon.
- If the text that follows the bullet point is not a proper sentence, it doesn’t need to begin with a capital letter and it shouldn’t end with a full stop, for example:
Tonight's agenda includes:
- annual review of capital gains issues
- outstanding inheritance tax issues
- If the text following the bullet point IS a complete sentence, it should begin with a capital letter. A full stop at the end is technically required but is not absolutely essential:
The agenda for tonight is as follows:
- We will conduct an annual review of capital gains issues.
- The senior tax manager will talk about outstanding inheritance tax issues.
- Lists of bullet points will have more impact if each one begins with the same word class (or part of speech) and if they are all of a similar length. Action verbs are a good choice for the first word, i.e. verbs that describe the performing of an action. If you do use verbs, make sure that each one is in the same tense. Here’s an example of the effective use of action verbs in a person’s CV/résumé:
Duties and responsibilities included:
- teaching national curriculum to Key Stage 1 pupils
- reaching attainment targets and improving learning performance
- developing extracurricular sports programme
- Bullet points tend to have more impact if their text is relatively short. Make sure you use the same typeface and margin width within each section.
Bullet points are visually attractive and make it easy for a reader to locate important information. Nevertheless, try to use them sparingly: too many bullet-pointed sections in the same document will mean that their impact is lost.