English Usage Topics > Punctuation
The first section of this entry deals with the punctuation of ordinary sentences.
See also the sections on direct speech and titles and quoted phrases later in this entry.
Full stop (.)
You start a sentence with a capital letter. You put a full stop at the end of a sentence, unless it is a question or an exclamation.
It's not your fault.
Cook the rice in salted water until just tender.
In American English, the punctuation mark (.) is called a period.
Question mark (?)
If a sentence is a question, you put a question mark at the end.
Why did you do that?
Does any of this matter?
He's certain to be elected, isn't he?
You put a question mark at the end of a question even if the words in the sentence are not in the normal question order.
You know he doesn't live here any longer?
People occasionally do not put a question mark at the end of a sentence in question form if, for example, it is really a request.
Would you please call my office and ask them to collect the car.
You put a full stop, not a question mark, after a reported question or an indirect question.
He asked me where I was going.
I wonder what's happened.
Exclamation mark (!)
If a sentence is an exclamation, that is, something said with strong emotion, you put an exclamation mark at the end. In informal writing, people also put an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence which they feel is exciting, surprising, or very interesting.
Your family and children must always come first!
We actually heard her talking to them!
In American English, the punctuation mark (!) is called an exclamation point.
You must put a comma
- After or in front of a vocative
Jenny, I'm sorry.
Thank you, Adam.
Look, Jenny, can we just forget it?
- Between items in a list, except ones separated by and or or. You can choose whether or not to put a comma after the last item, before and or or.
We ate fish, steaks, and fruit.
...political, social and economic equality.
The men hunted and fished, kept cattle and sheep, made weapons, and occasionally fought.
...educational courses in accountancy, science, maths or engineering.
- Between three or more descriptive adjectives in front of a noun, without and
...in a cool, light, feminine voice.
Eventually the galleries tapered to a long, narrow, twisting corridor.
- After a name or noun phrase, before a description or further information
...Carlos Barral, the Spanish publisher and writer.
...a broad-backed man, baldish, in a cream coat and brown trousers.
- Between the name of a place and the county, state, or country it is in. A comma is usually put after the county, state, or country as well, unless it is at the end of a sentence.
She was born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1913.
There he met a young woman from Cincinnati, Ohio.
- After or in front of an adjective which is separate from the main part of the sentence, or after a separate participle
She nodded, speechless.
I left them abruptly, unwilling to let them have anything to do with my project.
Shaking, I crept downstairs.
- Before a non-defining relative clause (a clause that gives more information about someone or something but is not needed to identify them)
She wasn't like David, who cried about everything.
The only decent room is the living room, which is rather small.
He told us he was sleeping in the wood, which seemed to me a good idea.
- Before a question tag
That's what you want, isn't it?
You've noticed, haven't you?
You can put a comma, for emphasis or precision,
- After the first of two qualitative adjectives used in front of a noun
We had long, involved discussions.
...a tall, slim girl with long, straight hair.
Note that young, old, and little do not usually have commas in front of them.
...a huge, silent young man.
...a sentimental old lady.
...a charming little town.
- After or in front of a word or group of words that adds something to the main part of the sentence. If you put a comma in front of the word or group, you should also put one after it, unless it comes at the end of the sentence.
In 1880, he founded a large furniture company.
Obviously, it is not always possible.
There are links between my work and William Turnbull's, for instance.
They were, in many ways, very similar in character and outlook.
The ink, surprisingly, washed out easily.
Long groups of words are usually separated with commas.
He is, with the possible exception of Robert de Niro, the greatest screen actor in the world.
A comma is put after or in front of an adverbial if its meaning is otherwise likely to be misunderstood.
'No,' she said, surprisingly.
Mothers, particularly, don't like it.
- In front of and, or, but, or yet, when giving a list or adding a clause
...a dress-designer, some musicians, and half a dozen artists.
...if you suffer from fear, stress, or anxiety.
I tried to help, but neither of them could agree.
Her remarks shocked audiences, yet also improved her reputation.
- After a subordinate clause
When the fish is cooked, strain off the liquid.
Even if he survives, he may be disabled permanently.
It is usually best to put a comma after a subordinate clause, although many people do not put commas after short subordinate clauses.
You don't normally put a comma in front of a subordinate clause, unless it contains something such as an afterthought, contrast, or exception.
Don't be afraid of asking for simple practical help when it is needed.
Switch that thing off if it annoys you.
The poor man was no threat to her any longer, if he ever really had been.
He was discharged from hospital, although he was homeless and had nowhere to go.
If you do put a comma in front of a clause, you should also put a comma after it if it does not come at the end of the sentence.
This is obviously one further incentive, if an incentive is needed, for anybody who needs to take slimming a little more seriously.
- In front of a participle which is separate from the main part of the sentence
Maurice followed, laughing.
Marcus stood up, muttering incoherently.
- After a noun being used in front of someone's name
...that marvellous singer, Jessye Norman.
She had married the gifted composer and writer, Paul Bowles.
Don't put a comma
- In front of and, or, but, and yet when these words are being used to link just two nouns, adjectives, or verbs
We had a lunch of fruit and cheese.
...when they are tired or unhappy.
- Between a qualitative adjective and a classifying adjective, or between two classifying adjectives
...a large Victorian building.
...a medieval French poet.
- After the subject of a clause, even if it is long
Even this part of the Government's plan for a better National Health Service has its risks.
Indeed, the amount of support for the proposal surprised ministers.
- In front of a that-clause or a reported question
His brother complained that the office was not business-like.
Georgina said she was going to bed.
She asked why he was so silent all the time.
- In front of a defining relative clause (a clause that identifies someone or something)
I seem to be the only one who can get close enough to him.
Happiness is all that matters.
The country can now begin to develop a foreign policy which serves national interests.
The semi-colon is used in more formal writing to separate clauses that are closely related and could be written as separate sentences, or that are linked by and, or, but, or yet.
I can see no remedy for this; one can't order him to do it.
He knew everything about me; I knew nothing about his recent life.
He cannot easily bring interest rates down; yet a failure to do so would almost certainly push the economy into recession.
It is also sometimes used between items in a list, especially if the list items are phrases or clauses, or if they contain internal punctuation.
He wrote about his life: his wife, Louise; their three children; the changes that he saw in the world around him.
The colon is used
- In front of a list or explanation
The clothes are all made of natural materials: cotton, silk, wool and leather.
Nevertheless, the main problem remained: what should be done with the two murderers?
- Between two main clauses that are connected, mainly in more formal writing
Be patient: this particular cruise has not yet been advertised.
- After introductory headings
Cooking time: About 5 minutes.
- In front of the second part of a book title
...a volume entitled Farming and Wildlife: A Study in Compromise.
A colon is also sometimes used in front of quotes. See below at direct speech.
A spaced dash (i.e. with a single space before and after it) is used
- In front of a list or explanation
They need simple things – building materials, clothing, household goods, and agricultural implements.
...one of his most basic motives – commercialism.
- After and in front of a group of words or a clause that adds something to the main sentence but could be removed
Many species will take a wide variety of food – insects, eggs, and fruit – but others will only take the leaves of particular trees.
- In front of an adverbial, clause, or other group of words, for emphasis
I think Ruth was right – in theory and practice.
Let Tess help her – if she wants help.
My family didn't even know about it – I didn't want anyone to know.
Spaced dashes are not used in very formal writing.
An unspaced dash (i.e. with no space before or after it) is used
- To show a range
...see pages 15–60.
- Between two adjectives or noun modifiers that show that two countries or groups are involved in something or that an individual has two roles or aspects
...the United States–Canada free trade pact
- To show that something such as a plane or a train goes between two places
...the Anguilla–St Kitts flight.
...the New York–Montreal train.
Brackets ( )
Brackets ,also called parentheses, are used after and in front of a word, group of words, or clause that adds something to the main sentence, or explains it, but could be removed.
This is a process which Hayek (a writer who came to rather different conclusions) also observed.
A goat should give from three to six pints (1.7 to 3.4 litres) of milk a day.
This is more economical than providing heat and power separately (see section 3.2 below).
Full stops, question marks, exclamation marks, and commas go after the second bracket, unless they apply only to the words in the brackets.
I ordered two coffees and an ice cream (for her).
We had sandwiches (pastrami on rye and so on), salami, coleslaw, fried chicken, and potato salad.
In the face of unbelievable odds (the least being a full-time job!) Gladys took the six-hour exam – and passed.
Square brackets [ ]
Square brackets are used, usually in books and articles, when supplying words that make a quotation clearer or comment on it, although they were not originally said or written.
Mr Runcie concluded: 'The novel is at its strongest when describing the dignity of Cambridge [a slave] and the education of Emily [the daughter of an absentee landlord].'
You use an apostrophe
- In front of an 's' added to a noun or pronoun, or after a plural noun ending in 's', to show a relationship such as possession.
...my friend's house.
- In front of contracted forms of be, have, and modals, and between 'n' and 't' in contracted forms with 'not'.
I'm terribly sorry.
I can't see a thing.
- In front of 's' for the plurals of letters and, sometimes, numbers
Rod asked me what grades I got. I said airily, 'All A's, of course.'
There is a time in people's lives, usually in their 40's and 50's, when they find themselves benefiting from their investments.
- In front of two figures referring to a year or decade
...souvenirs from the '68 campaign.
He worked there throughout the '60s and the early '70s.
An apostrophe sometimes shows that letters are missing from a word. Often the word is never written in full in modern English. For example, o'clock has been reduced from 'of the clock', but it is never written in full.
She left here at eight o'clock this morning.
Don't use an apostrophe in front of the 's' of a plural word like apples or cars. Also, don't use an apostrophe in front of the 's' of the possessive pronouns yours, hers, ours, and theirs, or the possessive determiner its.
'Spelling (for information on the use of the hyphen in compound words)
Slash or stroke (/)
A slash, stroke, or oblique is used
- Between two words or numbers that are alternatives
Write here, and/or on a card near your telephone, the number of the nearest hospital with a casualty ward.
...the London Hotels Information Service (telephone 629 5414/6).
- In rations and ranges
He was driving at 100 km/h.
... the 2010/11 academic year.
- In website addresses
- Between two words describing something that is in fact two things, as in a washer/drier or a clock/radio
Each apartment has a sizeable lounge/diner with colour TV.
Direct speech (' ' or " ")
You put inverted commas, also called quotation marks or quotes, at the beginning and end of direct speech. You start the direct speech with a capital letter.
'Thank you,' I said.
British writers use both single and double inverted commas (' ' and " "), but American writers tend to use double inverted commas (" ").
If you put something like he said after the direct speech, you put a comma in front of the second inverted comma, not a full stop. However, if the direct speech is a question or an exclamation, you put a question mark or an exclamation mark instead.
'We have to go home,' she told him.
'What are you doing?' Sarah asked.
'Of course it's awful!' shouted Clarissa.
If you then give another piece of direct speech said by the same person, you start it with a capital letter and put inverted commas round it.
'Yes, yes,' he replied. 'He'll be all right.'
If you put something like he said within a sentence in direct speech, you put a comma after the first piece of direct speech and after he said, and you start the continuation of the direct speech with inverted commas. Don't give the first word of the continuation a capital letter, unless it would have one anyway.
'Frankly darling,' he murmured, 'it's none of your business.'
'Margaret,' I said to her, 'I'm so glad you came.'
If you put something like he said in front of the direct speech, you put a comma in front of the direct speech and a full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark at the end of it.
She added, 'But it's totally up to you.'
He smiled and asked, 'Are you her grandson?'
People sometimes put a colon in front of the direct speech, especially to show that what follows is important.
I said: 'Perhaps your father was right.'
A dash is used to show that someone who is speaking hesitates or is interrupted.
'Why don't I –' He paused a moment, thinking.
'It's just that – circumstances are not quite right for you to come up just now.'
'Oliver, will you stop babbling and –' 'Jennifer,' I interrupted, 'the man is a guest!'
A line of dots (usually three) is used to show that someone hesitates or pauses.
'I think they may come soon. I...' He hesitated, reluctant to add to her trouble.
'Mother was going to join us but she left it too late...'
Note that sometimes what a person thinks is directly quoted in front of a comma or after it, rather than in inverted commas.
My goodness, I thought, Tony was right.
I thought, what an extraordinary childhood.
When you are writing a conversation, for example in a story, you start a new line for each new piece of direct speech.
When the direct speech takes up more than one line, don't put an opening inverted comma at the beginning of each line, only at the beginning of the direct speech. If you are giving more than one paragraph of direct speech, you put inverted commas at the beginning of each paragraph but not at the end of any paragraph except the last one.
Titles and quoted phrases
When you are mentioning the title of a book, play, film, etc, you can put inverted commas round it, although people quite often do not, especially in informal writing. In books and articles, titles are often written without inverted commas, or in italics (sloping letters). The titles of newspapers, especially, are not usually written in inverted commas.
...Robin Cook's novel 'Coma'.
...Follett's most recent novel, Hornet Flight.
When you are mentioning a word, or quoting a few words that someone said, you put the word or words in inverted commas.
The manager later described the incident as 'unfortunate'.
He has always claimed that the programme 'sets the agenda for the day'.
In British English you don't usually put the punctuation of your sentence within the inverted commas.
Mr Wilson described the price as 'fair'.
What do you mean by 'boyfriend'?
However, when people are quoting a whole sentence, they often put a full stop in front of the closing inverted comma, rather than after it.
You have a saying, 'Four more months and then the harvest.'
If they want to put a comma after the quote, the comma comes after the closing inverted comma.
The old saying, 'A teacher can learn from a student', happens to be literally true.
In American English, a full-stop or comma is put in front of the closing inverted comma, not after it.
There was a time when people were divided roughly into children, "young persons," and adults.
If you are quoting someone who is also quoting, you need to use a second set of inverted commas. If you begin with a single inverted comma, you use double inverted commas for the second quote. If you begin with double inverted commas, you use single inverted commas for the second quote.
'What do they mean,' she demanded, 'by a "population problem"?'
"One of the reasons we wanted to make the programme," he explains, "is that the word 'hostage' had been used so often that it had lost any sense or meaning."
People sometimes put inverted commas round a word or expression which they think is inappropriate.
He was badly injured after a 'friend' had jokingly poured petrol over him and set fire to it.
A line of dots (usually three) is used to show that you are giving an incomplete quotation, for example from a review.
'A creation of singular beauty...magnificent.' Washington Post.
You will see italics (sloping letters) used in printed books and articles, for example to mention titles or foreign words, and emphasize or highlight other words. Italics are not used in this way in handwriting. When mentioning titles, use inverted commas, or have no special punctuation at all. When mentioning foreign words, use inverted commas. In informal writing, you can underline words to emphasize them.
Other uses of punctuation
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