Punctuation is the system of signs or symbols given to a reader to show how a sentence is constructed and how it should be read.
Sentences are the building blocks used to construct written accounts. They are complete statements. Punctuation shows how the sentence should be read and makes the meaning clear.
Every sentence should include at least a capital letter at the start, and a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark at the end. This basic system indicates that the sentence is complete.
The Basic Signs of Punctuation
• the comma ,
• the full stop .
• the exclamation mark !
• the question mark ?
• the semi-colon ;
• the colon :
• the apostrophe '
• quotation marks “ ”
• the hyphen -
• brackets ( ) or [ ]
• the slash /
The Comma (,)
The comma is useful in a sentence when the writer wishes to:
• pause before proceeding
• add a phrase that does not contain any new subject
• separate items on a list
• use more than one adjective (a describing word, like beautiful)
For example, in the following sentence the phrase or clause between the commas gives us more information behind the actions of the boy, the subject of the sentence:
The boy, who knew that his mother was about to arrive, ran quickly towards the opening door.
Note that if the phrase or clause were to be removed, the sentence would still make sense although there would be a loss of information. Alternatively, two sentences could be used:
The boy ran quickly towards the opening door. He knew that his mother was about to arrive.
Commas are also used to separate items in a list.
The shopping trolley was loaded high with bottles of beer, fruit, vegetables, toilet rolls, cereals and cartons of milk.
Note that in a list, the final two items are linked by the word ‘and’ rather than by a comma.
Commas are used to separate adjectives.
The boy was happy, eager and full of anticipation at the start of his summer holiday.
As commas represent a pause, it is good practice to read your writing out loud and listen to where you make natural pauses as you read it. More often than not, you will indicate where a comma should be placed by a natural pause.
Although, the ‘rules’ of where a comma needs to be placed should also be followed.
However, it has been suggested that some bees prefer tree pollen.
Full Stop (.)
A full stop should always be used to end a sentence. The full stop indicates that a point has been made and that you are about to move on to further explanations or a related point.
Less frequently, a series of three full stops (an ellipsis) can be used to indicate where a section of a quotation has been omitted when it is not relevant to the text, for example:
“The boy was happy… at the start of his summer holiday.”
A single full stop may also be used to indicate the abbreviation of commonly used words as in the following examples:
• Telephone Number = Tel. No.
• September = Sept.
• Pages = pp.
Exclamation Mark (!)
An exclamation mark indicates strong feeling within a sentence, such as fear, anger or love. It is also used to accentuate feeling within the written spoken word.
“Help! I love you!”
In this way, it can also be used to indicate a sharp instruction
• “Stop! Police!”
or to indicate humor
• “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
The exclamation mark at the end of a sentence means that you do not need a full stop.
Exclamation marks are a poor way of emphasizing what you think are important points in your written assignments; the importance of the point will emphasize itself without a sequence of !!!in the text. An exclamation mark should only be used when absolutely essential, or when taken from a direct quote.
The exclamation mark should be used sparingly in formal and semi-formal writing.
Question Mark (?)
The question mark simply indicates that a sentence is asking a question. It always comes at the end of a sentence:
Are we at the end?
Note that the question mark also serves as a full stop.
The semi-colon is perhaps the most difficult sign of punctuation to use accurately. If in doubt, avoid using it and convert the added material into a new sentence.
As a general rule, the semi-colon is used in the following ways:
When joining two connected sentences.
We set out at dawn; the weather looked promising.
Assertive behavior concerns being able to express feelings, wants and desires appropriately; passive behavior means complying with the wishes of others.
The semi-colon can also be used to assemble detailed lists.
The conference was attended by delegates from Paris, France; Paris, Texas; London, UK; Stockholm, Sweden; Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Mumbai, India.
The colon within a sentence makes a very pointed pause between two phrases. There are two main uses of the colon:
It is most commonly used when listing.
She placed the following items into the trolley: beer, fruit, vegetables, toilet rolls, cereals and cartons of milk.
Or it can be used within a heading, or descriptive title.
Human Resource Management: Guidelines for Telephone Advisers
The apostrophe, sometimes called an inverted comma has two main uses.
The apostrophe indicates possession or ownership.
The girl's hat was green, (girl is in the singular).
This shows the reader that the hat belongs to the girl.
The girls' hats were green, (girls in this instance are plural, i.e. more than one girl, more than one hat).
This indicates that the hats belong to the girls.
Another use of the apostrophe is to indicate where a letter is omitted:
We're going to do this course. (We are going to do this course.)
Isn’t this a fine example of punctuation? (Is not this a fine example of punctuation?)
The time is now 7 o’ clock. (The time is now 7 of the clock)
Note that a common mistake is to confuse its with it’s.
It’s indicates to the reader that a letter has been omitted.
It’s a lovely day is an abbreviated way of saying: It is a lovely day.
Note that in most formal writing, the practice of using abbreviated words is inappropriate.
Quotation or Speech Marks (“….”)
Quotation or speech marks are used to:
1. To mark out speech
2. When quoting someone else's speech
My grandpa said, "Share your chocolates with your friends."
"George, don't do that!"
"Will you get your books out please?” said Mrs Jones, the teacher, “and quieten down!"
It is worth noting that to report an event back does not require speech or quotation marks.
Mrs Jones told the pupils to take out their books and to quieten down.
The hyphen is used to link words together.
• eighteenth-century people
• second-class post
The hyphen is also used when a word is split between two lines. The hyphen should be placed between syllables at the end of the upper line and indicates to the reader that the word will be completed on the next line.
Computer applications such as Word Processors can be set to automatically hyphenate words for you, although it is more common to use extra spacing to avoid hyphenation.
Brackets ( )
Brackets always come in pairs ( ) and are used to make an aside, or a point which is not part of the main flow of a sentence. If you remove the words between the brackets, the sentence should still make sense.
“The strategy (or strategies) chosen to meet the objectives may need to change as the intervention continues.”
Another example is as follows:
“We can define class as a large-scale grouping of people who share common economic resources, that strongly influence the types of lifestyle they are able to lead. Ownership of wealth, together with occupation, are the chief basis of class differences. The major classes that exist in Western societies are an upper class (the wealthy, employers and industrialists, plus tops executives – those who own or directly control productive resources); a middle class (which includes most white-collar workers and professionals); and a working class (those in blue-collar or manual jobs).” (Giddens, 1997, p.243)
Square Brackets […]
A different set of square brackets [ ] can be used:
• to abbreviate lengthy quotations
• to correct the tense of a quotation to suit the tense of your own sentence
• to add your own words to sections of an abbreviated quotation.
• to abbreviate lengthy quotations in an essay or report
“We can define class as a large-scale grouping of people who share common economic resources, that strongly influence the types of lifestyle they are able to lead. Ownership of wealth, together with occupation, are the chief basis of class differences. The major classes that exist in Western societies are an upper class […]; a middle class […] and a working class […].”
(Giddens, 1997, p.243)
To adjust a quotation to suit your own sentence
For example, if you were writing about class structure, you might use the following:
According to Giddens, (1997, p.243) the “[o]wnership of wealth, together with occupation, are the chief basis of class differences”.
Note, that when using square brackets, only the occasional letter as in the above example or the occasional word (for example when changing the tense of the sentence) would be placed in square brackets in this way.
Many people use the slash instead of or, and etc., but this is not always helpful to the reader. There is, however, a modern convention in gender-neutral writing to use ‘s/he’.
The correct use of capital letters is also important in writing.
Capital Letters: A Usage Guide
When and how to use capital letters can be a thorny problem. It may be acceptable to drop capital letters when writing casually to friends but if you are writing anything more formal then you need to use capital letters correctly.
This page lists the rules, and provides examples of when to use (and when not to use) capital letters in English writing.
Capital Letters Were Always The Best Way Of Dealing With Things You Didn't Have A Good Answer To
When to Use Capital Letters
To Start a Sentence
There are no exceptions to this rule.
This means that, after a full stop, you always use a capital letter.
If the previous sentence ends with a question mark or exclamation mark, you should also use a capital letter, ?and !, like full stops, indicate the end of a sentence. However if in the sentence you have a clause in parenthesis (brackets)
or sequence separated by dashes, and if these end with a question mark or exclamation mark, you should continue with lower case after the second bracket or dash.
Is it always necessary to use capitals to start a sentence? The answer is definitely yes.
She told herself – was it acceptable to talk to oneself? – that the answer was obvious.
The use of a capital after a colon (:) varies depending on whether you are writing in British or US English, just as the spelling of 'capitalisation' and 'capitalization' are different in British and US English.
You should use a capital letter after a colon with US spelling but not with UK spelling.
Rule 2: Titles
In titles, capitalize only the important words, not minor words such as ‘and’ and ‘but’.
‘Title Case’, with all the important words capitalized, is rather out of fashion at the moment. Most academic journals and standard referencing systems, for instance, prefer what is known as ‘sentence case’, with a single initial capital.
However, it’s good to understand the rules, in case you are required to use title case at any point.
Using the title of this article as an example:
Sentence case: “When to use capital letters”
Title case: “When to Use Capital Letters”
In title case, in this example, ‘Use’, although small, is an important word in the title, and should therefore be capitalized. ‘To’, however, is not important and therefore not capitalized.
Rule 3: For Proper Nouns
Proper nouns name something specific, for example, Jane, John, Oxford University, Denver, Qantas, Microsoft, Everest, Sahara. See our pages on Grammar for more information.
Proper nouns (nearly) always start with a capital letter.
There are exceptions to this rule and in marketing sometimes lower-case characters are purposefully used for some proper nouns. Examples include iPhone, eBay and oneworld Alliance. However, in most cases, proper nouns start with
a capital letter.
Caution is needed however, even when you are referring to a specific place or thing. If you use the more general noun rather than the proper noun, this should not be capitalized.
The text 'Historic University town' in this example is incorrect.
The word 'university' should not be capitalized as it is not specific.
The sign should read:
Historic university town
It would also be correct to use:
Home of Lampeter University
“I went to the University of Oxford today.”
“I went to Oxford today and had a look at the university.”
Capitalizing is correct in both sentences. In the first the proper noun 'University of Oxford' is used.
In the second sentence, the more general noun ‘university’ is used and so it is not capitalized.
The word 'I' is not a proper noun, it's a pronoun. In English 'I' is always capitalized. In many other languages the equivalent word is not capitalized.
Rule 4: Acronyms
Acronyms generally work like title case: you capitalize the important words, and not ‘and’, ‘of’, ‘for’ and so on.
The easiest way to work this out is to write out the full title, and then you can see which words don’t need to be capitalized.
To make this clear, here are some examples:
British Broadcasting Corporation BBC
Department for Education DfE
Manchester United Football Club MUFC
United Arab Emirates UAE
Ministry of Transport [test] MoT [test]
Head of Department HoD
World of Warcraft WoW
Rule 5: Contractions
For contractions, capitalize the initial letters of words, but not subsequent letters within the same word.
Contractions are like acronyms, but also include one or more letters from within the same word. Examples of this include HiFi, which is short for ‘High Fidelity’, and SciFi, short for science fiction.
The way to deal with these is to write out the phrase and have a look. Although the words that are abbreviated may not be capitalized, as in ‘science fiction’, the abbreviation always contains capitals for the start of each new word to
make the word boundaries and pronunciation clear. We frequently use SkillsYouNeed, contracting the spaces but making the phrase easier to read.
Many people wrongly assume that WiFi is a contraction of Wireless Fidelity. In fact the word WiFi is an entirely made up word - a marketing invention and does not stand for anything. It is, however, officially written as WiFi.
Rule 6: Overusing Capitals is Rude
WRITING ENTIRELY IN BLOCK CAPITALS IS SHOUTING, and it’s rude.
We’ve all done it: left the Caps Lock on while typing. But in email etiquette, online chats and/or forum posts, writing in capitals is the online equivalent of shouting. It’s rude, so best not to do it unless you really do want to shout at someone. Even then, consider whether you’d really do it if that person was in front of you, and also whether it will get you anywhere.
Although it’s usually best to avoid writing in capitals, it can be useful to write odd words in capitals to give them emphasis. HELP! You're going to LOVE the surprise.
It’s also much harder to read block capitals as all the letters are the same height, so you will make your point much more easily if you use lower case.
Sometimes, especially when completing a handwritten form, BLOCK CAPITALS are preferred since this can make data entry or automatic computer recognition of handwriting easier and more accurate.