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Punctuation Marks in English

Punctuation marks are super important in English, and they help us talk and write in a way that makes sense. Even if you’re really good at speaking English, getting punctuation right can be tricky. There are lots of rules and symbols, and it’s important to use them correctly.

If you’re having a tough time with grammar or punctuation, you’re not alone. This guide is here to help you understand how to use punctuation marks so you can always say exactly what you mean.

Why Punctuation Matters?

Punctuation is all about making sure people understand you. Using the right punctuation can change how your message sounds and what it means. Let’s look at a simple example:

  • Let’s eat grandpa.
  • Let’s eat, grandpa.

See how just a little comma changes everything? The first sounds like you want to eat your grandpa, and the second is just inviting him to dinner.

Imagine reading a really long sentence without any punctuation. It would be confusing, and you might not know where to pause or what’s happening. Using punctuation helps us avoid sending the wrong message or confusing others.

Here’s a good example:

  • With great enthusiasm and unwavering determination she embarked on a journey to explore her imagination’s secret landscapes fueled by the limitless possibilities that awaited her.
  • With great enthusiasm and unwavering determination, she embarked on a journey to explore her imagination’s secret landscapes, fueled by the limitless possibilities that awaited her.

Moving forward, let’s delve into the punctuation marks meaning and uses.

What Is a Punctuation Mark?

A punctuation mark is a symbol used in writing to clarify meaning and indicate pauses, boundaries, and relationships between different sentence elements. Punctuation marks help convey the intended tone, structure, and flow of written language. They play a crucial role in making written communication clear and effective.

How Many Punctuation Marks Are in English Grammar?

There are about 14 punctuation marks that are commonly used in English. Here’s the list of punctuation marks we’re talking about:

  • Period (.)
  • Comma (,)
  • Quotation Marks (” ” or ‘ ‘)
  • Question Mark (?)
  • Exclamation Mark (!)
  • Apostrophe (‘)
  • Colon (:)
  • Semicolon (;)
  • Hyphen (-)
  • Dash (— or –)
  • Parentheses (())
  • Brackets ([])
  • Ellipsis (…)
  • Asterisks (*)

Now that you know the basics, let’s dive into each of the above types of punctuation marks to understand them better.

Usage of Punctuation Marks

The importance of punctuation in written communication cannot be overstated, as it ensures clarity, coherence, and the accurate conveyance of meaning, ultimately enhancing the effectiveness of the message being conveyed. Below, you’ll find a brief overview of the usage of some common punctuation marks, including punctuation marks examples:

1. Period (.) – The Full Stop

The period is like the boss of all punctuation marks in the English language. It’s mainly used to show the end of your sentences, but it has other jobs, too.

Using Periods for Full Stops:

We put a period at the end of a sentence that makes a statement or when writing an indirect question. An indirect question is like asking someone something without directly talking to them. For example:

  • I brushed my teeth before leaving the house this morning.
  • We had a great time at Kate’s birthday party last weekend.

Using Periods for Abbreviations:

Periods are also used for shortening words or names. This includes abbreviating titles, like Dr. for doctor, or using initials. When talking about multiple people, you can add an “s” before the period. For example, Drs. Holt and Robinson. Periods are also used in abbreviating locations, such as the U.S.A.

Abbreviating organization titles can be tricky. If you say the organization’s name like a word, no period is needed. For example, NASA doesn’t need periods. But for Washington, D.C., we use periods because we say the letters.

When it comes to dates and times, periods are used after each letter in lowercase. For instance, 9 o’clock is written as 9:00 p.m. Days and months aren’t usually abbreviated in formal writing, but in quick notes, you’d use a period. For example: Mon. Feb. 25.

Examples of Periods in Action:

  • Mrs. Mitchell made us lunch on our road trip.
  • I have an appointment with Dr. Mike on Thursday morning.
  • He wakes up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to watch the sunrise.

2. Comma (,) – The Quick Pause

Commas are like the period’s little cousin and have various uses. They can be confusing, even for natives of English.

Using Commas:

Commas represent a short pause, not a full stop. They are used:

  • Between describing words (adjectives).
  • When a sentence starts with a dependent clause.
  • In compound sentences with more than one main idea.
  • In a series or list of items.
  • After transition words.
  • To include certain phrases.
  • After short interjections.
  • With quotation marks in dialogue.

In dates and times, commas are used for clarity. For example, in a sentence, you’d write: “I was born on Monday, July 10, 1995.”

Commas with Adjectives and Adjective Phrases

Commas are handy when you’re describing things with more than one adjective. There are two types: coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives.

  • Coordinate Adjectives: Use commas when the adjectives describe something independently, like “The large, menacing dog.”
  • Cumulative Adjectives: Don’t use commas when adjectives build on each other, like “Only three weak fence posts.”

You can check by adding “and” between them. If it works, use commas. If not, skip them.


  • Coordinate: The large and menacing dog.
  • Cumulative: Only three and weak fence posts.

Or try switching them around. If it still makes sense, commas are okay.


  • Coordinate: The menacing, large dog.
  • Cumulative: Only weak three fence posts.

Commas in Compound and Complex Sentences

  • Compound Sentences: 

Use commas to separate independent clauses (full sentences). Include a conjunction like “but” after the comma.

Incorrect: I did finish my report I haven’t handed it in yet.

Correct: I did finish my report, but I haven’t handed it in yet.

  • Complex Sentences:

Use commas after dependent clauses at the start of sentences.

Example: If you’ve found the page, please continue reading from there.

Commas for Lists

  • Use commas to separate items in a series or list.
  • The Oxford comma is optional (before “and” in the last item): “I ordered pizza, Fanta, and fries.”

Other Uses of Commas: Absolute Phrases, Quotations, Transition Words & Interjections

  • Absolute Phrases:

Use commas to set off incomplete sentence fragments that add depth.

Example: The tower, which stuck out like a sore thumb, stood 20 stories above the rest.

  • Transition Words: 

Put commas after transition words at the start of sentences.

Example: Therefore, the solution is to design more applications.

  • Quotations and Dialogue: 

Commas go before and after quotes in dialogue.

Example: Mary said, “I’m not going in that terrifying hospital.”

  • Interjections and Direct Address: 

Commas precede short interjections at the beginning of sentences.

Example: Yes, I have a pencil in my pocket that you can use.

3. Quotation Marks (“”) – Simple Indicators of Speech, Quotes & Titles

Quotation marks are straightforward and have three main uses: for dialogue, for quoting text, and for indicating titles.


  • When enclosing spoken words: “Let’s go out to eat some pizza tonight,” Alice suggested.

Quoting Text:

  • When referencing sources or lines: In a Works Cited Page: Smith, Jordan. “The Curious Case of Cats.”


  • For titles of certain things: “The Simpsons” is a long-running TV series.

In casual language, they show sarcasm or emphasize a hidden meaning.

4. Question Marks (?) – Signifying Questions

Question marks are reserved for questions, both complete sentences and fragments.

Example: “Did you complete your assignment yet?”

5. Exclamation Points (!) – Expressing Excitement or Strong Emotion

Used for exclamatory sentences conveying excitement.

Example: “I’m so happy you are coming to visit us soon!”

6. Apostrophes (‘) – Shortening Years, Indicating Possession & Contractions

Apostrophes serve three main purposes: showing possession, shortening years, and forming contractions.


  • In casual language, like “don’t” for “do not.”


  • Between a noun/pronoun and “s”: Mary’s car, James’ car (if the word ends with “s”).

Shortening Years:

  • For decades, such as the ‘80s.

Be cautious with plurals; avoid unnecessary apostrophes: “The Smiths” not “The Smith’s.”

7. Colons (:) – Linking Sentences and Indicating Lists or Explanations

Colons connect sentences, signaling lists, or explanations after an independent clause.


  • There are four countries on my bucket list: England, France, Spain, and Thailand.


  • A dolphin isn’t a fish: it’s a warm-blooded mammal.

Additional uses:

  • After greetings in letters/emails, in scripts for dialogue, between hours and minutes in time (4:00 p.m.), in movie/TV show titles (Star Trek: The Next Generation), in bibliographies (New York, NY: Bantams Books), and Bible references (John 3:16).

8. Semicolons (;) – Linking Independent Clauses and Lists

Semicolons resemble a period atop a comma and serve two primary purposes: linking independent clauses and clarifying lists.

Linking Independent Clauses:

  • Used between two independent clauses without conjunction: “My friend just had a baby girl; I hope to visit her very soon.”

In Lists:

  • Used when list items include commas for clarity: “My favorite cities to visit are Vancouver, British Columbia; Regina, Saskatchewan; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.”

9. Hyphens (-) and Dashes (– and —) – Differentiating Uses

Hyphens and dashes have distinct functions, with hyphens connecting words and dashes indicating breaks.


  • Connect words: self-employed.
  • Form descriptive adjectives: the-year-old son.
  • Indicate numbers in words (21 to 99): fifty-four.
  • Present fractions: three-quarters.
  • Show scores in games: They lost 25-3.
  • In prefixes: X-ray.


  • En dash (–) indicates a range between numbers: 23–57.
  • Em dash (—) serves as a substitute for colons, offering emphasis: “My dad was always afraid of one thing—spiders.”

10. Brackets, Braces & Parentheses ([ ], (), and { }) – Enclosing Information

These symbols enclose information or additional details, with parentheses serving various functions.


  • Square parentheses used to include additional information in direct quotes: “The enemies were caught, and [they] were imprisoned.”


  • Curvy brackets are primarily used in mathematical equations or sheet music.


  • Parentheses are used to specify phone numbers, area codes, and time zones in dates and times: (555) 555-5555, 4:00 p.m. (PST).

11. Ellipses (…) – Indicating Trailing Thoughts

Ellipses, three consecutive periods, signify a trailing thought or stammering in casual language, often used in dialogue.


  • “G. Washington once said, ‘…it’s much easier to prevent an enemy from posting themselves than it’s to dislodge them after they have got possession.'”

12. Asterisks (*) – Notations, Emphasis & Swear Word Censorship

Asterisks are versatile and used for footnotes, emphasis, and censorship, among other purposes.


  • Mark accomplishments with tarnish: an impeached president.
  • Represent multiplication or repetition in math equations.
  • Censor swear words: s**t.
  • Use for notations, footnotes, or corrections in formal writing.
  • Indicate emphasis.

But what if the sentence contains multiple punctuation marks at a time? Let’s find out below!

Placement of More Than One Punctuation Mark in a Sentence

Understanding the proper placement of different punctuation marks contributes to clear and accurate writing. Here are some guidelines to follow:

1. Periods and Brackets:

Periods typically go outside of brackets. Exception: When used as an abbreviation, the period stays inside the brackets.

Example: The information is presented in the article (see page 21 for details).

2. Quotation Marks and Periods/Commas:

Quotation marks typically go outside of periods and commas.

Example: “That is what Jill said.”

3. Abbreviation Periods:

Abbreviation periods do not move. When ending a declarative sentence with an abbreviation, only one period is used.

Example: Have you seen the report from Dr. Parker, Ph.D.?

4. Abbreviation Periods with Other Punctuation:

When using an abbreviation at the end of a sentence with another punctuation mark, the period comes before the additional mark.

Example: Have you heard the iconic speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.?

By following the above guidelines, you can not only enhance your writing’s quality but also engage readers and leave a positive impression, showcasing your attention to detail and language proficiency. So, ensure you know them well and consistently incorporate them in your writing.

Tailoring Punctuation Marks to Different Writing Styles

Adapting punctuation marks to different writing styles is essential for effective communication. Different genres and writing styles often have distinct conventions regarding punctuation usage. Here’s how to tailor punctuation marks to various writing styles:

1. Formal Academic Writing:

  • Use semicolons to connect several closely related independent clauses.
  • Employ colons to introduce lists or provide further explanation.
  • Limit the use of exclamation marks and ellipses, focusing on a more measured tone.

2. Creative Writing (Fiction, Poetry):

  • Experiment with unconventional punctuation to convey unique styles or moods.
  • Embrace ellipses for dramatic pauses or open-ended thoughts.
  • Consider minimalistic punctuation for a more fluid and artistic flow.

3. Journalistic Writing:

  • Prioritize clarity and brevity with straightforward punctuation.
  • Use em dashes for emphasis or to set off a significant point.
  • Keep exclamation marks and question marks purposeful, avoiding overuse.

4. Business and Professional Writing:

  • Stick to conventional punctuation for clarity and professionalism.
  • Avoid excessive exclamation marks; opt for a more formal tone.
  • Use bullet points for clear and organized lists.

5. Online Content and Social Media:

  • Embrace emojis and exclamation marks to convey enthusiasm or emotions.
  • Use hashtags sparingly and appropriately, considering the platform.
  • Employ ellipses and dashes for a conversational and informal tone.

6. Technical Writing:

  • Maintain precision and clarity with standard punctuation.
  • Use parentheses for supplementary information.
  • Minimize the use of exclamation marks; rely on facts and data.

7. Legal Writing:

  • Adhere strictly to punctuation conventions for legal documents.
  • Use colons and semicolons carefully to maintain precision.
  • Avoid emotive punctuation; prioritize a neutral and formal tone.

8. Email Correspondence:

  • Tailor punctuation to the formality of the recipient and the context.
  • Use exclamation marks sparingly to convey enthusiasm or urgency.

While tailoring punctuation to different styles is crucial, maintaining consistency within a piece is equally important for readability. Always consider the audience, purpose, and tone of your writing when making punctuation choices.

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