The Essential Condensed Guide to English Punctuation
English punctuation is just one of the many reasons why people find English a challenging language to learn.
Indeed, punctuation is such an art that relatively few native English speakers truly understand its subtle complexities. Yet the basics are not so very difficult to master once one understands a few simple rules. In this article, we take you through the ins and outs of basic English punctuation in a guide aimed at both native speakers and those learning English as a Foreign Language.
Comma ( , )
The comma is one of the most commonly used punctuation marks in the English language. It’s used to break up a sentence, making it easier to read and separating clauses. People often find it hard knowing where to place a comma, putting them into a sentence pretty much randomly – with disastrous results. A good rule of thumb is to think about how you would say a sentence out loud. The comma denotes a slight pause, and it’s particularly important for helping the reader make sense of longer sentences.
To give you an illustration, consider how the following sentence from Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There sounds without any punctuation:
“I had no particular reason to go to Spa except that it always sounded to me like a nice place and indeed it proved to be set in a bowl of green hills with a wooded park the Parc de Sept Heures a grand casino out of all proportion to the modest town…”
Try reading this out loud, and you’ll soon realise that the sentence doesn’t work without punctuation. It’s difficult to understand a sentence when all the clauses run into each other, as you don’t know where one part ends and another begins, or what relates to what. Now read it aloud with the punctuation put back in place:
“I had no particular reason to go to Spa, except that it always sounded to me like a nice place, and indeed it proved to be, set in a bowl of green hills, with a wooded park, the Parc de Sept Heures, a grand casino out of all proportion to the modest town…”
This sentence now makes grammatical sense, as it uses commas to separate individual clauses, such as “I had no particular reason to go to Spa” and “except that it always sounded to me like a nice place” – though note that the sentence, correctly, never uses a comma to connect two independent clauses. It also illustrates another way of using the comma: where the Parc de Sept Heures is mentioned, the commas either side of it are used in place of parentheses, or brackets, which we’ll cover in more detail later; these are essentially adding an aside, with the extra piece of information being the name of the wooded park mentioned in the previous clause.
The Oxford comma – or how to use commas in lists
You would also use commas to separate items in a list. For example:
“I went shopping to buy fruit juice, bread, jam and milk.”
If you add a comma before the last item, before the “and”, this is called an “Oxford comma”. It isn’t always necessary, but there are sometimes occasions when it is needed to add clarity and avoid confusion. Take this sentence, for example:
“We opened the door to the aliens, Prince William and Kate Middleton.”
This makes it look as though Prince William and Kate Middleton are aliens. To indicate that they arrived alongside some aliens, add an Oxford comma:
“We opened the door to the aliens, Prince William, and Kate Middleton.”
Much clearer! We’ll come across another use for commas later in this article, in the section on quotation marks.
- Commas denote a short pause
- Use commas to separate clauses
- Use commas to separate items in a list
Semi-colons ( ; )
Semi-colons lie somewhere in between commas and full stops. They denote a longer pause than a comma, but not as long a pause as a full stop – although they are used to join two independent clauses that would work as two separate sentences. You would use a semi-colon in instances in which the clause you put after a semi-colon adds some extra information that’s related to what you wrote in the first clause. Consider how the following sentence sounds when punctuated with a comma, semi-colon and full stop.
“I have a shed at the bottom of my garden, I use it as my office.”
“I have a shed at the bottom of my garden; I use it as my office.”
“I have a shed at the bottom of my garden. I use it as my office.”
The first version, with the comma, sounds completely wrong (because it is). The second two are both grammatically correct, but the semi-colon makes the statement sound more sophisticated than two separate short sentences. Don’t use semi-colons when the second clause is completely unrelated to the first, as in this example:
“I have a shed at the bottom of my garden; I like pies.”
It is acceptable to use a semi-colon to present two contrasting pieces of information that are loosely related, however. For example, if you wanted to talk about one person doing something while another person did something else on the same task, you could link the two with a semi-colon, as follows:
“He mowed the lawn; I pulled up the weeds.”
You can also use semi-colons to mark a pause in a longer sentence that already uses commas to separate clauses:
“I walked into town, hoping to meet up with a friend; but it was a snowy day, and my friend was unable to get off her drive.”
- A semi-colon denotes a longer pause
- Use a semi-colon to join two related clauses that would work as two freestanding sentences
Colons ( : )
Colons are primarily used to indicate the start of a list. They can also be used in a similar fashion to a semi-colon, in instances in which the second clause explains or follows directly on from the first. Here are two examples to illustrate these different uses.
“Activities on offer include: white water rafting, canyoning, hiking and camping.”
“Never give up on your dream: you can achieve it if you put your mind to it.”
- Use a colon to start a list
- Use a colon to add a second clause that elaborates on the first clause
Exclamation marks ( ! )
Exclamation marks are used at the end of a sentence in place of a full stop. They’re used to indicate an exclamation, surprise or humour, as in the following examples:
“Ouch! That was painful.”
“Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!”
“Her cooking was the worst I’ve ever seen!”
“The phone bill was £70! Can you believe it?”
They can also be used to indicate a cheerful tone of voice:
“Well, this is all very jolly!” she remarked.
Or in direct speech to show that someone is shouting:
“It’s none of your business!” he shouted.
The meaning of an exclamation mark depends on the context. You’ll often see people using two or more consecutive exclamation marks to express great surprise or amusement in an informal environment, such as an email or social media:
“I’ve just won £10 on the lottery!!!”
This is fine when you’re writing informally, but it’s to be avoided in formal writing. In fact, it’s best to avoid exclamation marks altogether in a formal document, such as an academic essay.
- Use to highlight an exclamation or a statement that’s particularly surprising or funny
- Never use more than one unless writing informally
Apostrophes are arguably one of the most abused punctuation marks in the English language, as few people seem to understand the basic rules for their use. Apostrophes indicate possession (something belonging to someone) or contraction (for instance, “do not” becomes “don’t” and “you are” becomes “you’re”). Here are some examples:
“They suggested a walk to Jill’s house.”
“It’s too far to walk.”
“When you’re finished, come and see me.”
When you’re indicating possession in the plural, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’, as follows:
“They suggested a walk to her parents’ house.”
Because “it’s” (with an apostrophe) means “it is”, we omit the apostrophe when using the possessive form of “it”:
“The dog buried its bone.”
A common mistake among English speakers is to use an apostrophe to make a word plural (an error particularly prevalent in shops, which might advertise “half price banana’s” – it should, of course, be “bananas”). Apostrophes are never used in this way.
- Use to indicate possession – before the ‘s’ for singular and after the ‘s’ for plural
- Use to indicate a contraction, in place of the omitted letters
- Omit the apostrophe when using the possessive form of “it”
- NEVER use an apostrophe to make a word plural
Ellipses ( … )
Ellipses are a series of three dots, usually used to indicate that some words or phrases have been omitted when quoting from a text, within the same sentence or paragraph, without altering its meaning (often to make the quote more concise and relevant to the point you’re making). One use may be because you want to show contrasts or similarities between two words or phrases within the same chunk of text; for example:
“In his famous speech, Shakespeare presents opposing courses of action, such as ‘To be, or not to be … To die, to sleep’.”
Ellipses are often also used at the end of a sentence in place of a full stop, to show thoughts trailing off, or to indicate a meaningful pause, hesitation or suspense:
“The noise repeated itself again and again until she slipped into a deep sleep…” (trailing off)
“She’s not the only one unhappy with the situation…” (meaningful pause)
“But that wasn’t the end of it; things were about to get much worse…” (suspense)
“I’m really not sure about this… I don’t think we have the right tools.” (hesitation)
- Use ellipses to indicate an omission when quoting
- Use them at the end of a sentence for suspense, hesitation, a meaningful pause or to show a trailing off of thoughts
Quotation marks or inverted commas ( “ ” and ‘ ’ )
Quotation marks, otherwise known as inverted commas, are used to denote someone talking, or when quoting from a text someone else has written. They’re also used to highlight a word or phrase being spoken about, or a word or phrase that is in some way unusual or not likely to be known to the reader. Here are some examples of quotation marks in action:
“This is highly suspicious,” he said.
“When the writer talks about the concept of ‘global warming’, there are a few things to bear in mind.”
“The idea of a ‘people’s revolution’ wasn’t a new one.”
There are no hard and fast rules about whether you should use the single ( ‘ ’ ) or double ( “ ” ) version, but try to be consistent. If you’re quoting from a text that contains a quote, use whichever version you didn’t use for the main quote (as in the examples above).
Use a comma before the quotation marks when you’re writing direct speech:
“He said to me, ‘I’m so happy I could cry’.”
- Use quotation marks when quoting from a text
- Use them to indicate direct speech
- Use them to highlight an unusual word or concept
Hyphens ( – )
Hyphens are used to form new words out of more than one word, such as “father-in-law”. They are often used to make compound adjectives, nouns or verbs, such as “gluten-free”, “nail-clippers” or “essay-writing”. There are no concrete rules about whether or not you should use hyphens in compound words – many now omit the hyphen, so you’ll need to decide what looks right on a case-by-case basis.
An important rule to remember is that when using a phrasal verb (adjective plus preposition or adverb), you should not use a hyphen, but when that phrasal verb becomes a noun, you should use one. For example:
“They were in the process of breaking up.”
“The break-up hit them both hard.”
You can also use a hyphen when you’re adding a prefix to a word, when the last letter of the prefix is the same as the first of the word you’re adding it to: “co-operate”, for example.
- Use hyphens to form some compound words
- Don’t use a hyphen for phrasal verbs, but do use one when a phrasal verb becomes a noun
- Use a hyphen to add a prefix to a word that begins with the same letter as the end of the prefix
Parentheses ( ( ) )
Also known as brackets, parentheses are used to add an extra piece of information that isn’t an essential part of the sentence, but that is nevertheless useful. For example:
“At £54 (around $90), it’s quite pricey.”
You can also use parentheses to add an authorial comment:
“He said it didn’t matter (though in my opinion he was lying).”
As in these examples, put the punctuation after the bracket if used at the end of a clause or sentence.
- Use parentheses to add extra, non-essential information or an aside from the writer.
Believe it or not, this is merely a brief introduction to the complex world of English punctuation. There are many more nuances that we didn’t have room to discuss here, but this should give you a solid foundation to get your punctuation better than that of most people.