Do you know how to use punctuation marks correctly in English? While some might seem straightforward, you may come across punctuation marks that you’re unsure about … so this post is designed to serve as a handy reference.
You’ll find “further reading” suggestions for each punctuation mark, if you want to explore it in more detail.
Note: We’re going to focus on American English punctuation, but when there’s a difference in British English usage, I’ll explain that too.
Punctuation Marks That End Sentences
This is the first punctuation mark that children learn: the period (or, if you’re British, “full stop”) at the end of a sentence.
Sarah ran to school.
It’s also used after (and sometimes in) many abbreviations:
Mrs. Jones waved to Sarah.
Some employees, e.g. receptionists, need to work set hours.
Note, however, that British English normally omits the period after Mr, Mrs, and Ms.
#2: Question Mark
If a sentence poses a direct question, it should end with a question mark.
Did you remember to buy milk?
How much do I owe you?
Is this the right way to the park?
#3: Exclamation Point
The exclamation point (or “exclamation mark” in British English) is used to add emphasis or to indicate that words are being spoken in excitement, surprise, or alarm.
I just heard the news – congratulations!
“Oh no!” She stared at the mess in dismay.
Exclamation points are not normally appropriate in formal writing, such as academic essays or business reports. You should only use one exclamation point unless you’re writing something very informal (such as a text message to a friend).
Punctuation Marks Within Sentences
Commas can be used in a number of ways, including to separate elements of a sentence, or to separate items in a list.
They’re used after a subordinate clause at the start of a sentence:
After the play, we went for dinner.
They’re also used to separate items in a list:
Peter found a marble, a button, and a piece of string.
Commas can also be used within large numbers to make them easier to read:
I had $1,500 to spend on a holiday.
Note that commas aren’t used when giving a year in numerals: it’s 2019 nor 2,019.
A colon can be used to introduce an example or series of items, or to join two independent clauses (where the second clause explains the first). It can also be used to introduce a quotation, though it isn’t always the best choice of punctuation mark for that.
For the school trip, please bring:
- A water bottle
- A sun hat
- Some spending money
I went home: there was no point staying after Sally had gone.
The semicolon (sometimes written as semi-colon) is used to join together two independent clauses that could otherwise stand as independent sentences. Both these examples are grammatically correct:
My friends caught the bus without me. I was left standing around on my own.
My friends caught the bus without me; I was left standing around on my own.
Semicolons can also be used in place of commas in a list that has commas within the list items. For instance:
I plan to visit: France, where I’ll see the Eiffel Tower; England, where I’ll see Buckingham Palace; and Germany, where I’ll see Neuschwanstein Castle.
The dash (not to be confused with the hyphen) is a handy punctuation mark that can often be used to replace parentheses or a colon. For instance:
The girl rose her hand (tentatively).
The girl rose her hand—tentatively.
It can also be used to indicate an interruption (e.g. in dialogue).
There are two types of dash:
The en-dash: –
The em-dash: —
In American English, the em-dash is normally used in sentences, as in the example above. The en-dash is used to indicate a span of time or a range of numbers:
From 2012–2014, I was at university.
Some publications, such as the Guardian, use the en-dash in place of the em-dash. If you do this, you should put spaces around the en-dash.
#8: Quotation Marks
Quotation marks enclose words that are a direct quotation. They’re used around dialogue, like this:
John said, “What’s the matter with you?”
Martin sighed. “You know what’s the matter.”
Quotation marks are always used in pairs. They can be double or single: double is more common in American English and single in British English. Quotes within quotes should use the alternative type of quotation mark:
Martin said, “When I saw Amy, she told me, ‘That’s it, we’re done.’ Do you think she really meant it?”
The ellipsis is used to indicate a pause or gap:
I wanted to make it up to her… eventually.
It can also be used within quotations to indicate missing words, which is useful when you want to shorten a long quotation.
The ellipsis should always consist of three dots – don’t put five or six for emphasis, except in the most informal writing.
Parentheses are used for asides and clarifying information, like this:
She was his sister (from his father’s first marriage).
In most cases, you can replace parentheses with a comma without changing the meaning. If a sentence ends with the parentheses, the period (or question mark or exclamation mark) should go outside the parentheses, unless they enclose the whole sentence.
In British English, parentheses are called brackets.
Brackets are normally used to add clarity to a sentence, such as when you’re quoting someone. They indicate the addition of your words rather than the words of the person you’re quoting. For instance:
As John Smith writes, “[Winter] is a wonderful time of year, where everything lies in wait for the new life of Spring.”
In British English, these are called square brackets.
Braces are rarely used outside mathematical expressions and computer programming, where they keep elements together. Here’s an example:
display: inline !important;
border: none !important;
Punctuation Marks Within Words
The apostrophe has two main purposes: to indicate a possessive, and to indicate a missing letter. It’s used within words, like this:
Sam’s cake was much nicer than the one Tom made.
I don’t have time to get involved.
Be careful not to use apostrophes in plurals, and watch out for words that are easily confused, like “its” (belonging to it) and “it’s” (short for “it is”).
The hyphen joins two (sometimes more) words together into a compound word. For instance:
He studies eighteenth–century literature.
We want to foster our students’ self–confidence.
I get on very well with my mother–in–law.
It can be tricky to know which words should use a hyphen and which don’t, especially as usage tends to change over time. The word e-mail is now more often written email, for instance. A grammar checker like ProWritingAid or Grammarly can help, or you can search on Google to see how the word tends to be written by others.
Punctuation might seem tricky, and the rules can sometimes seem confusing. The main thing to remember is that punctuation exists to help make your meaning clear.
By using punctuation marks correctly, you ensure that what you’ve written is easy for your readers to understand. If you’re struggling with any of these punctuation marks, take a look at the further reading suggestions for extra guidance … or dig through the Punctuation archive of articles for lots more help.