How to Use Punctuation Correctly

For writers, using correct punctuation is an integral part of writing in the English language—if you aim, to present your readers with a clear, easy to understand, and, therefore, enjoyable read that makes them want to read more of your work.

This article aims to help writers by looking at some of the most used punctuation marks in the English language and showing you how to use punctuation correctly to enhance your writing. If you’re in any doubt about your knowledge of correct punctuation or simply lack confidence when using it, reading this article should give you some basic but invaluable knowledge.

Period [.]

Periods, also known in British English as full-stops, denotes the end of a complete sentence. It doesn’t matter how long the sentence is or how many different elements it contains, it will always end with a period, just as this one does.

Here are some more examples of a period being used as a sentence ending:

“The boy plays in the park.”

“The boy plays in the park, but he doesn’t like playing alone.”

“The boy plays in the park, but he doesn’t like playing alone, so he asked his parents for a puppy.”

Periods also have another use—they always follow an abbreviation. These examples show how that works in action with the abbreviation and the following periods underlined:

“Dr. Lee dropped off his son, Sung Lee Jr., at the park.”

“Dr. and Mrs. Baker both attended the party.”

“The chapel will have to be repaired, i.e., the tiles lifted and replaced with new.”

Question Mark [?]

Like periods, question marks are always placed at the end of a sentence, but they’re different because they show that the sentence is actually a question.

Look at these examples:

“Are you going to wear that dress?”

“Do I really have to explain this?”

“What subjects are you doing at school today?”

Exclamation Point [!]

The exclamation point is a relative of the period and the question mark in that it can end a sentence, but it expresses something different to both—it’s used to show emphasis or an emotional exclamation, which you can usually hear when someone speaks by their tone and the volume of their voice. The exclamation mark ends “exclamatory” statements that are generally quite short and convey emotions like joy, anger, surprise, pleasure, or outrage, among many others. It’s a very emotional punctuation mark!

These examples give you an idea of the kind of “exclamatory” sentences that need exclamation mark:

“It’s a boy!”

“Get out of here!”

“I want my money!”

“I’m never coming here again!”

“This is the best rollercoaster ever!”

Now you know the power of the question mark and the exclamation mark, but what if we combine them into a whole new sentence-ending punctuation mark? Enter, the interrobang!

Interrobang [?!, !?, ‽]

Not seen or used as often as its cousins, the interrobang packs a punch by combining them both. It acts to end a sentence, it denotes a question, and it expresses emphasis or an emotional outburst in the same way as an exclamation mark. Are you excited by interrobangs?! Let’s have a look at a few examples of an interrobang in action:

“Whatever possessed you to do that?!”

“Did you say they have sixteen kids?!”

“How will we ever get it back?!”

“Why are you doing this?!”

Now that we’ve looked at the “family” of sentence-enders, let’s explore the punctuation family that helps writers by creating alternative ways to pause within a sentence.

Comma [,]

Commas are, well, common. They’re everywhere in sentences, breaking them up into smaller sections containing separate ideas and elements to make the sentence as a whole easier to read and understand. Commas cause a lot of confusion because they do several jobs, so it’s best to learn as much as you can about how they’re most commonly used by checking out the information in this link here.

Semicolon [;]

Semicolons are quite easy to use once you get used to them and know where they should go. They’re most often seen joining independent clauses—that’s sentences within a larger sentence. So, I hear you ask, why not just separate them using a period? Well, using a semicolon adds a little bit of stress that highlights the relationship between the two clauses. Look at these examples to see how easy, and impressive, it can be to use semicolons in your writing:

“Peter was anxious; his wife had not come home yet.”

“Anne spent the whole night cramming; her exam was due to start at 9 am the next day.”

“He hunted through the shelves for a first edition: Max was a collector of antique books.”

See what I mean?

You can also use semicolons to separate the elements in a long list instead of commas, like this:

“The countries that signed the declaration were: France; Britain; Germany; Mexico; Spain; and America.”

“You will need the following equipment on your trip: frying pan; small saucepan; cutlery; fishing rod; bait; and inflatable bed.”

Colon [:]

The colon made an appearance in the lists above—did you notice? It was used to introduce the lists of items that were punctuated by semicolons.

It has four main uses: (notice I used one just then to introduce the list that’s coming up?)

  1. Use it after a word to introduce a series or list of items;
  2. Use it to introduce an example;
  3. Use it to link two separate but related clauses where the last explains the first (in a similar way to the semicolon shown in the examples in the previous section);
  4. Use it to introduce a quote.

For example: (note the colon used here to introduce the following examples)

“I plan on learning the following languages: Japanese, Swedish, Russian, and Arabic.”

In the next example, the colon is linking two separate but related clauses, where the last explains the first:

“They couldn’t get into the compound: it was too late.”

“They didn’t bother to call the police: the thief was long gone.”

It’s used in a similar way to separate a statement of emphasis from the original statement, as in this example:

“This was what he had waited for: Christmas Day.”

Lastly, it makes itself useful in various non-grammatical ways: when writing the time; 10 p:m; in mathematical figures, such as ratios: 3:10, in academic references, and business correspondence.

Hyphens and the Em- and En-Dash

Hyphens and dashes look so similar that, when we’re reading, we hardly notice a difference between them. That’s why people often get confused about how to use them in their writing. However, they are different from each other, and each has a job to do. Let’s look first at the hyphen:

Hyphen

In the modern world, hyphens are seen more than ever: the English language is continually growing and adapting to the needs of the times. There’s always a need for new ways to name or describe things. For instance, the rise of computers and the internet has created a need for a whole new set of terms for describing related items that are created by joining two existing words, for instance:

Live-stream, e-mail, user-friendly, start-up.

As you can see, the hyphen’s job is to join the two words together to make one new term. The new term can act as a noun, an adjective, or a verb—it either names something, describes it, or reflects an action, sometimes at the same time. For instance:

An e-mail (noun), to e-mail (verb).

The new phrase is called a compound phrase because it’s a compound of two words. Here are a few examples:

Pre-historic, part-time, well-fed, self-restraint, dog-friendly

It also appears in compound numbers, for example:

He is twenty-two-years-old

He paid sixty-three dollars for it.

It’s often the case that, over time, some compound phrases can lose their hyphens and come to be written as one word. However, some cannot be changed, so it’s best to check if you’re unsure whether a phrase needs a hyphen or can be safely written as one word.

The Em and En Dashes

If you’re new to writing, this may be the first time you’ve heard of Em and En dashes. They look similar to hyphens and each other, but they have different jobs to do. Once you understand them, you can quickly learn to incorporate them into your writing.

Firstly, let’s look at the En dash:

En Dash [–]: You’ll notice that the en dash is twice the length of a hyphen. It’s a handy workhorse for times when we want to denote a range of something, such as a stretch of time, like years, or dates, or in ages, distances, and page or chapter ranges in a book. Look at these examples:

Pages 12–22; September–December; In the 5–10 age range; Chapters 14–16; They are open 9 am–6 pm.

En dashes also do another job—they allow us to add what’s known as a pre-fix at the beginning of another word that qualifies it—which gives vital information about the word it’s joined to, as in these examples:

The pre–World War II era; Post–operation care.

Now, let’s learn about the em dash:

Em Dash [—]: An em dash is a versatile fellow who, depending on the context, can be used to good effect as a less-formal, impactful alternative to commas when enclosing parenthetical phrases, using colons, and using parentheses/round brackets. Parentheses/round brackets are covered in detail in the next section.

An em dash highlights the relationship between parts of a sentence while at the same time linking them in an informal way that mimics natural speech that creates a sense of flow and adds greater emphasis. It looks less formal on the page than those other punctuation marks because it reflects normal speech—which makes for better readability.

 For instance, the em dash is often used to  replace the commas that usually denote a parenthetical phrase, as in these examples:

Note that no spaces are left between the previous and following letters when using em dashes.

With commas: “When he got back home, after three hours in traffic, his wife was relieved.”

With an em Dash: “When he got back home—after three hours in traffic—his wife was relieved.”

You can see in the second example that, when you’re reading the sentence, the em dash makes things flow a little better than when commas are used and gives more emphasis to the parenthetical material—the length of time he spent in traffic.

You can achieve a similar effect by replacing colons with an em dash. Again, it’s the em dash’s lack of formality and close relationship with natural speech that can improve flow and lends extra emphasis with a style that commas, parentheses, colons, and semicolons lack. Have a look at these examples and see what you think:

With a colon:

“Having discovered who cheated him, Glen had only one thing in mind: revenge.”

“She had only one thing in mind: murder.”

With an em Dash:

“Having discovered who cheated him, Glen had only one thing in mind—revenge.”

“She had only one thing in mind—murder.”

“She knew well who was responsible—her mother.”

“There was only one man he respected—the judge.”

It’s easy to see how em dashes can lend a sense of style, emphasis, and natural flow to your writing.

Brackets, Braces, and Parentheses

You’ll probably be used to seeing or using these handy punctuation marks, which are used to enclose additional information in a sentence that might not be necessary yet is nevertheless useful to the reader. That means, even if you removed the bracketed material, your sentence would still make perfect sense. Let’s look at them in more detail:

Brackets [[]]

Brackets can be round or square, and their correct usage depends on the information within them. Round brackets are used most, as in the following examples:

“She (Aunt Mary) was being a grouch at the Christmas party.”

“The mountain (1000 meters high) took two days to climb.”

Square brackets are most often found in academic writing to encompass any words missing from an original quotation to make the sentence make sense:

“Brown wrote, ‘Any [food] would be gratefully received.”

Braces [{}]

Braces are less often used in day-to-day writing and more commonly found in mathematical writing. However, if you need to contain listed items or two or more lines of text to show that they make up one unit, then using braces is one way of doing it, as shown in these examples:

Pick a color {red, green, or yellow} to paint the room.

3 * [1+{8-3}] = X

Parentheses/Round brackets [()]

We’ve already touched on parenthetical phrases that contain additional or qualifying but not vital information within a sentence. Parentheses are related—they’re paired punctuation marks widely used to take the place of commas in denoting this sort of material. Take a look at these examples:

With commas: “Jean and Clare, who were siblings, did not care for each other.”

With parentheses: “Jean and Clare (who were siblings) did not care for each other.

Apostrophe, Quotation Marks, and Ellipsis

Our final group of punctuation marks are not related to each other but are among some of the most commonly used in the English language.

Apostrophe [’]

Apostrophes are everywhere in writing, yet people often get confused about the correct way to use them. You’ll find them used in three main ways:

They stand in for missing letters in contracted words, for example: Didn’t (Did not); Haven’t (Have not); I’d (I had) and so on.

They indicate possession of something:

“That man’s house is a mess.”

“Those are the professor’s books.”

“Isn’t that Billy’s satchel.”

They indicate the plural of single letters and numbers:

A’s, B’s, and C’s; a’s, b’s, and C’s; 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s.

Quotation Marks [“, “]

Where would we be without quotation marks to tell us when someone is speaking or when someone is being quoted? Very confused, that’s where!

These are paired punctuation marks that can be single or double quotation marks, and it’s important to know which to use where. Here are the main ways you’ll see them in action:

You need double quotation marks, also called “speech marks” to highlight direct speech when, say, you want to show that a character in your book is speaking. In this instance, double quotation marks encompass the speech:

“Where could she have gone?” John asked.

“I bet she’s gone to town shopping,” Clare said, “but I expect she’ll  be back soon.”

Another use of double quotation marks is to emphasize specific words or phrases. Sometimes this highlights a word of specific importance:

This process is known as “generalization.”

The longest word in the English language is “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

At other times, it can convey a sense of disbelief, mockery, or disparagement:

Yes, I’m sure you were “sick” yesterday.

Was that another “niece” you brought to the theatre last night?

She may be your “muse” but you’re still not marrying her.

Single quotation marks are used when quoting someone else’s words to distinguish them from our own:

“He yelled, ‘Help, I can’t move,’ after getting hit by the truck,” Maria exclaimed.

“His favorite poem began with the line, ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,’ but I can’t remember the title.”

Ellipsis […]

Ellipses are the familiar trio of periods—“dot-dot-dot”— that are seen so often in fiction and act as a placeholder for text. For example, ellipses show when someone’s words tail off, or they lose their train of thought, but you still get the gist of what they mean:

“I don’t know what to do if…What if she doesn’t come?”

“He said he would take me to…”

Ellipses can also stand in for missing text when you want to, say, cut down a long quotation because of a lack of space, as with this poem by Edward Lear:

‘The owl and the pussycat went to sea…Wrapped up in a five-pound note.”

It’s worth learning how to use ellipses correctly, as they can be a handy punctuation tool when you’re writing. You can find out more details about how to use them by clicking here.

We’ve reached the end of this short tour through the most used punctuation marks and the correct way to use them. Doing so will ensure your writing has a clarity that will make it much easier for a professional to edit and, therefore, will improve the final quality of your manuscript before publication. Use them correctly and wisely, and you’ll find readers are keen to come back for more.

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