The word ‘punctuation’ refers to something that occurs at intervals. It interrupts or disturbs the flow. So we might say ‘his lecture was punctuated with coughs’ or ‘the play was punctuated by applause’. However, the commonest use of the word refers to the small punctuation marks which interrupt the flow of words on a page. They make sentences and words easier to understand.
Most children who read widely will naturally pick up the principles of punctuation with a brief explanation from a parent or other older person. Nonetheless, it is useful to understand how punctuation marks work, in order to use them more effectively. In today’s society with text messages and and social networking, it is all too easy to ignore punctuation.
Note that other languages sometimes have different rules, and may have different punctuation marks altogether.
Full stops: .
The most basic punctuation mark is the dot, or full stop (known as ‘period’ in American English). This signifies the end of a sentence, and a natural pause when reading aloud. A sentence is a group of words that should make sense. It might be a simple one such as: ‘The cat sat on the mat.‘ It might be a more complex one, such as some of the sentences on this page. Many sentences have other punctuation marks too.
Question marks: ?
The question mark indicates the end of a question. A question asks for information or opinions, and usually expects an answer; for instance: ‘How are you today?‘ or ‘What is fifteen times six?‘ Questions often contain a word such as ‘how’, ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘which”, ‘why’ (etc) that indicate a query. Sometimes the verb is placed first in a question. So ‘Jack is going to the supermarket‘ is a statement, while ‘Is Jack going to the supermarket?’ is a question.
In conversation, intonation lets the listener know whether a question is being asked. In writing, the question mark makes it clear. Someone might write, ‘Having a shower later‘ – and without punctuation, it would be ambiguous. With a full stop, the writer would be expressing the intention of taking a shower later in the day. With a question mark, the writer would be asking if the listener was planning on taking a shower later.
Exclamation marks: !
Exclamation marks (exclamation points in American English) indicate something dramatic – something to make the reader stop and take notice. You should use them only rarely; too many exclamation marks on a page can make it look exhausting. Use them after interjections such as: ‘Wow!‘ or ‘Great!’ or – occasionally – when you make a dramatic point. If in doubt, use a full stop instead.
Commas break a sentence up into clauses or phrases, and provide a natural brief breathing point. There is much debate about the use of commas. Some writers prefer minimal use, with shorter sentences where possible. Others prefer long and more complex sentences which may express deeper thinking, but which are difficult to understand without at least a smattering of commas.
Commas are also used to distinguish items in a list. There is a difference between British and American English here. In the UK we would write: I like apples, pears, plums and pineapples. Commas are placed after the first two items in that list, but not after the word ‘plums’ since it is immediately followed by the conjunction ‘and’. However, in American English, there would also be a comma after ‘plums’. Neither is right or wrong – they are simply different ways of using this punctuation mark.
Semi-colons are – in essence – mid-way between commas and full stops. They indicate a pause that’s a bit more than that of a comma; a slight change of direction in a sentence. I like semi-colons and probably over-use them, while other writers mostly avoid them. Sometimes a comma will work as well as a semi-colon, and sometimes a long sentence may be better broken up into two separate sentences.
The apostrophe, which looks like a raised comma, is the source of much amusement when used incorrectly. Essentially it has two purposes: either to indicate that a word or phrase has been shortened, or to show possession. As an example of the former, words like shouldn’t (should not) or she’s (she is) have apostrophes where indicated. An often misused one is you’re (you are) which, when spoken, sounds exactly like the word your (belonging to you).
Even more commonly mistaken words are they’re (they are) which sounds like the word their (belonging to them) or there (referring to a nearby place). Worst of all is it’s (it is) which is very often confused with its (meaning belong to it).
The other purpose of the apostrophe is to indicate that something belongs to someone or something. If the house belongs to Jessica we might say: There is Jessica’s house. If I am talking about a dish used for putting cat food in, I might say, ‘Here’s the cat’s dish.‘ Confusion arises when plurals are involved. If I have several cats, the apostrophe would go AFTER the ‘s’ that indicates more than one cat. So: These are the cats’ dishes. Even more confusion arises with irregular plurals, such as child/children. We say: The children’s clothes, with the apostrophe after the plural word, with another ‘s’ added to show possession.
Note, however, that the possessive pronouns do NOT have apostrophes even when an ‘s’ is involved: his, hers, ours, theirs, its, and so on. In addition, if there is a simple plural with no possession involved, an apostrophe should not be used.
Quotation marks: ‘ ‘
Here is another example of a British/American difference. In the UK, single apostrophe marks are used outside spoken or quoted speech. In the US, double apostrophe marks ” ” are used instead. This used to be the case in the UK too, so you will sometimes see older British books with double quotation marks used. Whichever style is used, they are very important for letting the reader know when direct speech is being used. They should not be used for indirect speech. So: Josie said, ‘Let’s go out to eat’. But: Jason suggested that they might go out to eat.
Note that when someone speaking is reporting someone else speaking, the alternative style of quotation marks is used. For example: Jemima said, ‘Let’s go out to eat. I know Mum said, “Be back by midnight”, but it’s only nine o’clock now.’ If this were using American style punctuation, with double quotes for Jemima’s speech, then the reported speech inside would have single quotation marks.
Colons and dashes: : and –
I have used colons after the headings on this page, to indicate that what follows explains something. In this case, the punctuation mark being referred to is shown in turquoise. I could also have used a dash for the purpose, although dashes tend to be used in pairs – like this – to explain something in the middle of a sentence. You will note, however, that I use dashes below to explain briefly what can be found at the different links I have given. Colons might perhaps have been more appropriate, but dashes looked better!
That’s probably as much as you ever wanted to know about punctuation. But for more explanations and examples, you might like to visit one of these pages:
The University of Oxford on punctuation – includes other punctuation marks such as brackets, as well as the commonly used marks described above
Punctuation from the University of Sussex – full guide, with plenty of detail and example
For general information about English grammar on this site, see:
Introduction to grammar – why study the subject at all? An overview of parts of speech
Nouns – the different forms of nouns explained, with plenty of examples
Verbs – different forms, tenses, and voices of verbs
Pronouns – how to use pronouns, and their different uses in sentences
Adverbs – what adverbs are, when and how to use them