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Punctuation in English

Punctuation helps organise the orthography or writing system of the language. It creates sense, aids clarity and gives stress to certain parts of a sentence.

Proper punctuation can make a huge difference to the meaning of a sentence. For example, the following sentence reads differently depending on the punctuation used:

Eats shoots and leaves
Eat, shoots and leaves


Eats, Shoots and Leaves is the title of a famous book all about punctuation. The sentence without a comma reads as though an animal eats shoots (parts of a plant) and leaves (assumed here to be parts of a plant).

The second sentence with a comma implies the animal eats, then shoots something or someone with a gun, then leaves the scene (exits).

As you can see, the difference is enormous!


English punctuation 

The different punctuation marks in English are:

Full stop .
Comma ,
Colon :
Semi colon ;
Exclamation mark !
Question mark ?
Hyphen and Dash and
Parentheses or Brackets (  ) [  ]

english punctuation joke

Full stop

We use full stops to mark the end of a sentence. For example:

We stayed in a hotel in Manchester. The rooms were big and the free breakfast was delicious.

We also use full stops after initials and abbreviations. For example:
Ms C. Jones, Laura H. Clarke, P. D. Samson

American English also tends to use full stops after titles. For example:
Dr. Armitage, Prof. Botting, Mr. Cook
Dept. etc. e.g. i.e.


Capital letters

We use capital letters to mark the first word of a sentence.

English also uses capital letters for proper nouns, such as names, titles, days of the week, months of the year, cities, counties, countries and holidays.

Exclamation mark

Exclamation marks are used instead of a full stop to show a sentence is an exclamatory phrase.

Exclamation marks are also used to denote surprise and add emphasis and emotion, especially in informal writing. For example:

No! Wait for a minute and listen to this!
The journey took five whole hours!

Question mark

Question marks are used after a sentence instead of a full stop to indicate a question. For example:
Did it rain last night?
Yes. Did you get wet?
Have you seen the weather forecast? It says it will rain for seven days in a row!


Commas are used in a sentence to offer a shorter pause than a full stop and to improve clarity of expression. For example:

She walked to the shop in a happy, contented, relaxed and slightly philosophical mood.
Peter, the English teacher, knew all the students.

English uses commas to separate items in a list. British English does not use a comma before the ‘and’ introducing the last word in a list, unless the sentence would be unclear otherwise. American English does use a comma after the ‘and’.

For example:
He bought bread, milk, eggs, potatoes and meat. (British English)
He bought bread, milk, eggs, potatoes, and meat. (American English)

If a comma is used before the word ‘and’, it is called an Oxford comma.

oxford comma jokejpg


We use colons to introduce lists. For example:
There are three colours in the French flag: blue, red and white.

We also use colons to indicate a subtitle of a book, film or CD or to indicate a subdivision of a topic. For example:
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
Bryan Adams: The Best Of
Physics: Mechanics
English Queens: Elizabeth I

We often use colons to introduce direct speech. For example:
Then she said: ‘I hope you have a good trip.’


We use semi-colons instead of full stops to separate two main clauses. In these cases, the clauses are related in meaning but are grammatically distinct. For example:

There are 50 different types of fruit available in the shop; apples are the most popular.

Semi-colons are normally only used in more informal writing. For informal, everyday writing, full stops and colons are more common.


Quotation marks

Double quotation marks indicate speech in English. For example:

She said: “Please buy some eggs when you go to the market

If a quotation occurs within another quotation, we can use single quotation marks. For example:

“I was talking to my mum and she said: ‘Buy the eggs when you go to the market’ just before I put the phone down”.

It is also possible to use the quotation marks the other way around. Academic writing normally uses single quotation marks for quotations.

Single quotation marks can be used around titles of books. For example, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. But we can also use italics instead: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Single quotation marks are also used to emphasis a word and to imply there might be some ambiguity about the word’s meaning. For example:
The fire alarm went off, but the ‘fire’ turned out just to be some burnt toast

punctuation joke banner

Hyphens and Dashes

Dashes can be either written as an ‘en-dash’, which is a short dash (the length of the letter ‘n’) or an ’em-dash’, which is a longer dash (the length of the letter ‘m’).

The em-dash (long dash) is often used in informal writing to interrupt the text in order to add some extra non-essential detail. It works like a comma. For example:

‘The teacher – who we all loved – passed us with flying colours

The em-dash is also used instead of colons and semi-colons. For example:

‘Thanks for inviting me to the party – I had a great time’.

The en-dash is used to separate dates, ranges or other numbers. For example:

1970 – 974

p.32 – 33

140 – 150 cars

Some people think the en-dash looks better than the em-dash due to the spaces either side of the dash.

dash punctuation joke

Hyphens are shorter than dashes and used differently. Hyphens are used to join two parts of a compound adjective. For example:

She bought a state-of-the-art stereo

He worked as an in-house copywriter

They had a four-year-old child

The house had an old-world charm

Parentheses and Brackets

Parentheses are used like dashes to add some extra non-essential detail. For example:

We drove to Nottingham (where I was born) to visit the castle

Her parents gave her some money to spend at the fair (£20)

Parentheses are often called brackets, but brackets can also mean square brackets.

parentheses punctuation joke

Square brackets are used for an aside by the author and are often used in formal academic writing or newspaper reports to cut out unnecessary words from a quotation or to clarify an omission. For example, in a long list of foods and drinks we could cut out some of the words:

The meal included meat, […] bread and wine.

Or we can add clarity to a sentence that would otherwise not make grammatical sense, often when spoken with gaps and pauses. For example:

He knew it was over ten years [since] he had seen them playing in the street

Explore more about the English writing system, academic writing, and the genre, form and register of written material.


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