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The use of punctuation is extremely important when writing in English. However, if you find punctuation in English problematic, take heart! Difficulties with punctuation affect all writers, whether they are native speakers or otherwise! Many language specialists delight in arguing about minor trivialities in punctuation, and we certainly do not advocate discussing issues in this level of depth. However, correct use of punctuation will make your texts more reader-friendly, and this is all to the good.

This page outlines the main uses of the various punctuation marks in English. This is not an exhaustive list. Rather, it is designed to provide a quick and easy checklist of the main rules. Please do note that we only mention here the most basic uses of some of the key punctuation marks. If in doubt, please use one of the reference works mentioned to explore the problem further.

1. What aspects of punctuation do writers find difficult?

  • While most basic aspects of punctuation (the full stop, the comma, question marks and exclamation marks) are usually reasonably well known, many people, even native speakers, seem to struggle with the correct use of the apostrophe ('s).
  • Many native speakers do not know how to use the colon ( : ) and semi-colon ( ; ) correctly and confuse the two.
  • For non-native speakers of English, using punctuation is a more complex business. Typically, punctuation marks will be inserted where they are not needed, or not used where they would be appropriate.
  • The matter is made more complicated because of what is known as 'L1 interference'; people tend to 'copy' the use of punctuation that exists in their first language. Many languages, for example, use the comma much more sparingly than we do in English.

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2. What are the five main punctuation marks that cause confusion?

1. The full stop (.)

The full stop is mainly used:

  • to show a strong pause.
  • at the end of a sentence. (example: John stayed in bed late yesterday.)
  • after abbreviations but is not required for acronyms of organisations (e.g. CELTE, BBC).
  • when you are quoting something. In this case, the full stop goes inside quotation marks, but outside brackets.
The full stop is not used:
  • if a sentence ends with a question mark or an exclamation mark (e.g. How old is she? What a nuisance!)


2. The comma (,)

The comma is mainly used:

  • in lists. e.g. I have been to Spain, Portugal, France and Ireland.
  • to separate clauses when they are joined by words such as 'and', 'but', 'for', 'or', 'nor', 'so', 'yet'. e.g. Roberto arrived early for the interview, but he was able to go in straight away.
  • after 'introductory' phrase that come before the main clause. e.g. While Mary was waiting for her friend, she witnessed a very unusual event. Although Mark was experienced, he did not get the job.
  • in the middle of a sentence, to 'bracket off' non-essential information. We use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause. E.g. John, who was only seven, could already read very difficult books.
  • in direct speech, to separate the saying word from the speech part. E.g. John said, I like it here.
  • where words have a special position within the sentence that interrupts normal word order. e.g. Mark, somewhat unusually, had not returned home that night.


The comma is not used:

  • before 'that', when using indirect speech. E.g. Mary realised that she had left her coat behind. They think that this is a positive step.


3. The colon ( : )
The colon is mainly used:
  • to introduce lists of points e.g. There are three main areas for development: firstly, ¡K¡K
  • (less usually) to provide an explanation: e.g. He could not manage to finish the examination: he was unwell and had to leave early.
  • in an academic reference, to separate the place of publication from the name of the publisher (e.g. London and New York: Routledge.)


4. The semi-colon ( ; )
The semi-colon is stronger than the comma and so it can be used to 'bracket off' examples which contain more words. It is mainly used:
  • in lists, where there are longer items that cannot be separate by a comma (e.g. The main issues were threefold: the expense of purchasing the relevant products; the associated costs of exporting manufactured products; and the difficulty of hiring suitable staff.)


5. The apostrophe ( 's or s' )
The main uses of the apostrophe are to indicate:
  • missing letters (e.g. She won't return the essays until next week)
  • possession (e.g. John's book was found by the cleaner after the library had closed.)
  • Note that where a proper name ends with an s, an extra s is added after the apostrophe; for example, Mr. Jones's bag; Erasmus's complete works; Paris's cathedrals.

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3. Recommended books for learning the use of punctuation

We recommend especially:

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000). 

This is a very useful and inexpensive book for anyone who would like to explore further the use of punctuation in their written work. It is useful for experts as well as for novice writers.

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4. Websites offering help with punctuation

Check out the following help online:

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