Punctuation Marks

Lesson 4.7 Punctuation Marks

4.7.1  Punctuation is a system of conventions, including marks (symbols) and spacing, that we use in written English to organise a text and indicate meaning. Punctuation marks are the symbols that we use to form punctuation, for example: commas ( , ), question marks ( ? ), and full stops ( . ). The word ‘punctuation’ dates from the mid-16th century and comes from the Latin word ‘punctus’, which means ‘point’.

4.7.2  If we don’t use punctuation – and punctuation marks – we end up with a block of letters without spaces or form that is very difficult to read. For example, which text is easier to read below?

With punctuation:

There was once a girl who wanted to be grown up like her parents, so she made a special drink that would make her grow, and she did grow. She grew until she was as big as her parents, but she didn’t stop there. She kept on growing until her foot was the size of her house.

She quite enjoyed being suddenly so big, but her parents were annoyed…

Without punctuation:


Imagine a whole page – or even a whole book like that! Punctuation makes sentences and paragraphs possible and aids reading, both silent and aloud. We always leave a space between words and after a full stop, question mark, or exclamation mark to show that a new sentence will follow. After a number of sentences, e.g. six or eight, we leave a full line space to create a paragraph, before starting the next paragraph. Different punctuation marks indicate pauses of differing lengths. For example, in general we can say that:

full stop ( . ) / question mark ( ? ) / exclamation mark ( ! )    =    pause for two beats

semi-colon ( ; ) / colon ( : ) / en dash ( – ) / em dash ( — )    =    pause for one beat

comma ( , )    =    pause for half a beat

Many people feel that punctuation has become less important due to the way we send texts and short messages to one another throughout the day, without really worrying about spelling, capital letters, commas, or other punctuation marks, for example:

  • hi Jan r u goin to the concert ? let me no ok?! 🙂
  • sorry i cant make it tonight

While good punctuation is less important in short messages among friends, if you want to make a good impression with written English and communicate effectively – e.g. when creating a CV or preparing a report for work – it is a good idea to pay close attention to correct punctuation. You can use online punctuation checkers like the one here, or use the inbuilt grammar checker in your computer’s writing software. Alternatively you could simply study the topic of English punctuation and remember what you learn.

The system of punctuation that we have today hasn’t always existed. In the past there was far less punctuation in written English. When writing manuscripts in medieval days, scribes would pack words together closely without  spaces, using marks like full stops to indicate the word breaks. After the rise of the printing press in the late 15th century, it became urgently necessary for there to be some form of organisation in a text, using a system that was standardised among all printers, so punctuation became more important.

4.7.3  The punctuation marks in English are:

.    full stop / dot

We put a full stop at the end of each sentence, unless it is a question or needs an exclamation mark (e.g. ‘My uncle lives in Newfoundland.’). It is also used with abbreviations (e.g. ‘e.g.’ and ‘Mrs.’). The full stop is called a dot when it appears in a website address (URL) or an email address, e.g. http://purlandtraining.com (‘dot com’).

,    comma

We use commas to separate clauses in a sentence – often before conjunctions, e.g. ‘I need to hurry up, because the bus is leaving soon’. If there wasn’t a conjunction (‘because’) we would need to use a semi-colon rather than a comma, because a comma wouldn’t provide a long enough pause to make the information clear:

We also use commas to separate words in a list (e.g. ‘I would like a bag of crisps, two tubs of ice-cream, a can of fizzy orange, and a large box of popcorn, please.’). The ‘Oxford comma’ is the comma before the last word in a list, for example after ‘orange’ in the sentence above. It is a matter of style whether you use it or not. Many writers and publishers do not, but it may add to clarity (see 4.7.6 below).

’    apostrophe

We use an apostrophe before an ‘s’ to show that something belongs to somebody or something (e.g. ‘Paul’s pencil’). If the noun is plural and ends in ‘s’ we put the apostrophe after the final ‘s’ to make the possessive phrase, e.g. ‘The books’ owner’ notThe book’s owner.’ We also use an apostrophe to show that part of a word is missing, e.g. with contracted verb forms, like ‘It’s raining’ (the apostrophe replaces the ‘i’ of ‘is’) and ‘Sarah’s gone home early’ (the apostrophe replaces the ‘ha’ of ‘has’).

?    question mark

A question mark is used at the end of a question, instead of a full stop (e.g. ‘What time does the film start?’).

!    exclamation mark

We put the exclamation mark at the end of a sentence which has a stronger emphasis than other sentences. It may be that the sentence is amusing (e.g. ‘My dog has no nose. How does he smell? Terrible!’) or insulting (e.g. ‘I’m sorry but your dog really does smell bad!’) or any sentence that shows a strong emotion (e.g. ‘Oh no! Someone’s stolen my mobile!’).

“  ”  or  ‘  ’    speech marks

Speech marks go around part of a text which is spoken by a person. This is to make it stand out from the rest of the text, for example: “The mechanic had a good look inside the bonnet and said, ‘There’s no hope, I’m afraid. You don’t need a mechanic, you need a miracle worker!’ I tried to hide my disappointment. ‘OK’, I replied.” We can use speech marks with two parts either side of the speech    (“  ”) or one part (‘  ’) – it’s a matter of style, with some printers preferring one format and some the other. We also use speech marks to indicate irony or sarcasm, e.g,

  • That hat she is wearing is very ‘nice’.    =    the writer does not like the hat

A B C    capital letters

We put a capital letter at the start of a sentence, as well as at the start of proper nouns (e.g. places – ‘London’ – and names of people – ‘Megan’ – and companies – ‘Boots the Chemist’ – as well as products: ‘Coke Zero’. We also use capital letters for acronyms, such as: BBC and CNN. We do not put a capital letter at the beginning of common nouns, as in some languages such as German, in which all nouns are capitalised. For example: ‘I went to the Cinema cinema yesterday.’

;    semi-colon

A semi-colon is a short pause in a sentence. It is not as long a pause as a full stop, but it’s longer than a comma. For example, if you read the following piece of text out loud, you could count two beats for a full stop, one beat for a semi-colon and half a beat for a comma: ‘The boys started running, but they were soon out of breath; it wasn’t long before the gang caught up with them.’ ‘Suddenly there was a loud noise.’

:    colon

A colon is similar to a semi-colon in that it helps to divide a sentence and provides a longer pause than a comma, but about half the pause of a full stop. It is used differently because it shows that the

clause which comes after it follows on from the clause before it. For example, in the sentence: ‘The children opened their presents: they couldn’t believe what they had found!’ the idea in the second clause (‘they couldn’t believe…’) follows on from the action in the first clause (‘The children opened their presents…’). Using a colon is like saying, ‘There’s more to come in the next part of the sentence’. It provides a short pause in a sentence and points the way to a continuing thought or action.

–    hyphen

We use a hyphen to join together two words into a phrase (for example: ‘non-stop’ and ‘south-west’) and to write numbers as words (for example, ‘35’ becomes ‘thirty-five’). It is also used at the end of a line to show that a word continues onto the next line, e.g. ‘pass-port’, and to indicate distances between times (‘1914-1918’) and places (‘London-Brighton’).

–    en dash

—    em dash

A dash is longer than a hyphen and has a different job. We use it to separate a particular clause from the rest of a sentence, for example: ‘We met Claire’s friend – who lives in Bristol – and he told us about his new job’. It is also used to indicate a pause or a change in the sentence’s train of thought, for example: ‘Roger took off his socks thoughtfully – it had been an extremely trying day’. The en dash is more common in general use. It is named after the width of a capital letter N. The em dash is used more often in literary works and there are usually no spaces between the em dash and the words either side of it. For example:

  • We packed the picnic—including all of the wonderful cakes—and jumped into the car excitedly.

It would be more usual to use en dashes instead, making the sentence look like this:

  • We packed the picnic – including all of the wonderful cakes – and jumped into the car excitedly.

(  )    brackets  or  parentheses

[  ]    square  or  box brackets

{  }    braces  or  curly brackets

We can use brackets to add extra information to a sentence, without disturbing the flow of the sentence too much. For example: ‘It had been John’s idea to invite Becky (who was secretly in love with him) to Heather’s birthday party’. Brackets are known as parentheses in American English (see below for more differences). Square brackets are used to provide additional information in the sentence in order to clarify something, e.g. ‘We [Jeff and I] went to Brazil for a fortnight.’ Braces are rarely used in normal English written texts, apart from in physics, computer science, or – along with other kinds of brackets – in mathematical equations. For example: 29{2-[48+4]}=y etc.

It is also worth mentioning bullet points and numbering as punctuation forms which help to organise a text and make it easier to read:

  • first point
  • second point
  • third point
  1. first item in a list
  2. second item in a list
  3. third item in a list

Finally, it is important to note that punctuation marks are different from other symbols on your keyboard.

These symbols stand for particular things and are often used as shortcuts, e.g. £ means ‘Pounds Sterling’ and & means ‘and’ – but they do not affect the organisation of a text or aid clarity, as punctuation marks do.

The following are symbols rather than punctuation marks:

4.7.4  The position of punctuation marks in a text differs according to their functions:

4.7.5  It is worth knowing that a few punctuation marks have different names in British English and American English:

4.7.6  Using punctuation correctly is very important if you want to communicate clearly. It even has its own special day in the calendar every year: 24th September is National Punctuation Day! The fact is that if you don’t use punctuation correctly the meaning of your sentence can end up very different from what you intended! In some cases, the same words can be used but the use of punctuation radically affects the meaning. Here are a few famous and amusing examples:




Here is a similar example: ‘Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog’ [Click here]




Finally, in this picture of a sandwich with the label ‘MADE “FRESH” IN-STORE!’ we can guess that the original intention of the writer was to emphasise how fresh the sandwich is, but unfortunately the speech marks create the opposite effect – implying sarcasm – so the message that is communicated is the opposite to what they intended, i.e. that the sandwich is not fresh.

Click here for more examples of punctuation gone wrong: 16 Unfortunate Misuses of Punctuation, or simply type ‘Punctuation Fails’ into your favourite search engine.

4.7.7  As if all the punctuation marks in this unit aren’t enough to learn, there are people who would like to introduce even more punctuation marks with different functions! For example:

Symbol: Name: Function:
interrobang indicates shock or confusion
acclamation indicates praise or great pride in somebody or something
doubt indicates that the text may not be accurate
rhetorical question used when asking a question that doesn’t need an answer

…and so on. Click here for more examples.

The best known of the new marks is probably the interrobang ] which combines a question mark with an exclamation mark to indicate shock or confusion/incredulity. For example, ‘You paid £400 for a ticket to see Justin Bieber in concert]’ One problem with these additional marks is that it isn’t always easy to find the correct fonts or symbols to be able to type them. I found the interrobang symbol in Microsoft Word under Insert Symbol > Wingdings 2, but the other three listed above were nowhere to be found. If the symbols are not available, people will not use them.

In addition, there are a few humorous suggestions for more modern punctuation marks here:

8 Punctuation Marks We Really Need

Punctuation does change over the years, of course. When I was at school the colon-dash (  : –  ) was common as a kind of dash indicating a following thought or paragraph / diagram / image, e.g.

The guests invited to the wedding said:–

‘We all agree that it was the best wedding ever!’

However, the colon-dash is now considered obsolete, with the dash taking over its role. In terms of the non-standard punctuation marks listed above, at the moment none of these modern radical punctuation marks are commonly used in written English. With this in mind, it would be wise to get to know and learn how to use the more standard punctuation marks on this page before exploring non-standard ones.


Ex. 4.7.1 Writing  Write the sentences and add capital letters, full stops and question marks:

1. my sister’s name is jackie
2. friday is my favourite day of the week
3. i like watching eastenders on bbc 1
4. charles dickens was a famous writer he was born in portsmouth
5. lisa and chantal are going on holiday to portugal in may
6. did you go to school today
7. my new address is 248 normanton road in nottingham
8. when are you going to the hospital
9. my doctor is getting a new receptionist she’s called louise robson
10. ben and i are going to look round leicester grammar school on wednesday

Ex. 4.7.2 Writing  Write the sentences and add capital letters, full stops and question marks:

1. how do I get to the library from here
2. the coach for london leaves in about half an hour
3. my birthday is in september i usually go out for a drink with my friends
4. what do you want for dinner tonight
5. birmingham is the second largest city in the uk
6. i’ll have a coke please and two packets of walkers crisps
7. if you need to see a consultant go to the derbyshire royal infirmary
8. mary poppins is my mum’s favourite film she likes julie andrews
9. i drive a red fiat punto and my uncle drives a green bmw
10. i joined morton park golf club last week it was very expensive

Ex. 4.7.3 Writing  Write the sentences and add capital letters, full stops, and question marks:

1. we always go to preston market on mondays, because it’s closed on tuesdays
2. are dr pepper and coca-cola made by the same us drinks company
3. i never watch laurel and hardy films because i don’t find them funny
4. while we were in tanzania we saw victoria falls
5. i worked as an accountant for emi in miami for two years
6. one of the most interesting places in the world is machu picchu in peru
7. i will study swedish next september following that i will work in malmö
8. is peter having a party at the blue bull pub on 22nd december
9. my brother steve and his wife pat are moving to 49 olive street, bradford, england
10. john clements started work here last november he’s doing really well

Ex. 4.7.4 Writing  Write the sentences and add capital letters, full stops, and question marks:

1. i went to the dentist on 4th june i met mr brown in the waiting room
2. our book group meets at the corner coffee shop every monday
3. i’ve just got back from a trip to the grand canyon
4. are tania’s parents coming over from canada next tuesday
5. charles turner lives at 148 greengrass road, milton, mh1 4tp
6. my kids have recorded two disney films they will watch them tomorrow
7. we can’t wait for britain’s got talent on itv on saturday night
8. did the president of marks & spencer resign from the company
9. alicia is trying to see mercury through her telescope she loves astronomy
10. steven sears is the new ceo at matlock water in derbyshire

Ex. 4.7.5 Reading  Add full stops to this text:

My name is Tim I live in Nottingham, which is a city in the UK I live in a small detached house with my wife Jenny, and our two children, Lisa and James I work at Debenhams in Nottingham,
and I really enjoy my job I am a sales manager for the sports clothing department Debenhams is the largest department store in Nottingham and there are branches all over the UK

When I’m not at work I like to play tennis with my friend Joe He is much better than me, but I still enjoy it At the weekends I sometimes take my family to Manchester to visit Jenny’s mum
She lives at Pine View Nursing Home in a nice suburb of the city and has been there for about five years She loves to see her grandchildren James always tells her about what he is doing at
school James and Lisa both go to the same school, Mount Street Junior School

Ex. 4.7.6 Reading  Add full stops to this text:

Hello, I’m Jenny, Tim’s wife We have been married for almost eleven years I met Tim when we were both at university I studied Physics while Tim studied Business Management We graduated from Cardiff University in 1989, and went to live in Birmingham We got married in 1993 at Lincoln Cathedral I took a one-year post-graduate teaching course, then got a job teaching Science at Lincoln High School

We moved to Nottingham in 1996 where Lisa was born I remember that she was a very fat baby, but a happy one! My mum helped us with looking after the baby in the first year, before she had to go into the nursing home in Manchester She wanted to move to a home in Manchester because that is where my two older sisters and their families live We go to visit often – when I can get Tim to drive us up there! I don’t drive I took some lessons when I was
a student in Cardiff but I found driving on the roads quite frightening and gave up! Perhaps one day I will try again

About two years after we had Lisa, James was born He was born at St.Patrick’s hospital in Nottingham It seems like it was only last week I can’t believe he’s already at school

Ex. 4.7.7 Reading  Add full stops to this text:

My name is Daniel I went to Glasgow University between 1992 and 1995, where I studied British History I lived in a basement flat in Cherry Tree Road with my friends Colin and Trevor We had a lot of good times I probably spent too much time playing sport and not enough time working on my assignments My favourite sport was basketball I still play it now, although not as often as I would like to After graduating I got a job working at Glasgow Central Library The money wasn’t bad, but the work was not to my taste, so I left after a few months

Later on I did teacher training in Norwich and became a Norfolk Adult Education teacher I got an amazing job training teenagers with learning difficulties Both this job and my degree came in really useful when I started writing fiction for young adults My nineteen books are all set in different periods of British history They involve a bunch of teenagers from the present day searching for answers to historical questions, like why the Romans left Britain My son Anthony is at university at the moment He’s studying Modern Languages at Exeter

Ex. 4.7.8 Reading  Add full stops to this text:

Hi, I’m Anthony, Daniel’s son I’m studying Modern Languages at Exeter University I’m in the second year of my course and finding it hard going at the moment I majored in Spanish, but I wish I had chosen Portuguese I met and fell in love with a beautiful girl from Brazil last autumn Francisca is going back to Rio next month after studying here for one year I’m thinking of going with her

It would mean taking a study break and my dad will not be happy I can’t really talk to him about my problems He is always busy writing the next book in his History Gang series He can’t see that life is about the here and now, not the past Francisca says that I could probably get a job working in a bar in Copacabana Beach She will have to work on her parents’ farm Perhaps we would be able to save up enough money to get back to the UK

It would be great to have a break from Exeter, and I’m sure my Portuguese would improve by living in Brazil I told Mr Robson, my tutor, about our plans, but he wasn’t that impressed and told me to finish what I started

Ex. 4.7.9 Reading  Tick the words that should start with a capital letter, then write them out correctly:

sahara desert
tommy’s bakery

Ex. 4.7.10 Reading  Tick the words that should start with a capital letter, then write them out correctly:

manor surgery
great news
mount kilimanjaro
kiwi fruit
robin hood
boxing day
manchester united
the next day
jennifer lopez

Ex. 4.7.11 Reading  Put a capital letter in the right places in this text:

my name is daniel. i went to glasgow university between 1992 and 1995, where i studied british history. i lived in a basement flat in cherry tree road with my friends colin and trevor. we had a lot of good times. i probably spent too much time playing sport and not enough time working on my assignments. my favourite sport was basketball. i still play it now, although not as often as i would like to. after graduating i got a job working at glasgow central library. the money wasn’t bad, but the work was not to my taste, so i left after a few months.

later on i did teacher training in norwich and became a norfolk adult education teacher. i got an amazing job training teenagers with learning difficulties. both this job and my degree came in really useful when i started writing fiction for young adults. my nineteen books are all set in different periods of british history. they involve a bunch of teenagers from the present day searching for answers to historical questions, like why the romans left britain. my son anthony is at university at the moment. he’s studying modern languages at exeter.

Ex. 4.7.12 Reading  Put a capital letter in the right places in this text:

hi, i’m anthony, daniel’s son. i’m studying modern languages at exeter university. i’m in the second year of my course and finding it hard going at the moment. i majored in spanish, but i wish i had chosen portuguese. i met and fell in love with a beautiful girl from brazil last autumn. francisca is going back to rio next month after studying here for one year. i’m thinking of going with her.

it would mean taking a study break and my dad will not be happy. i can’t really talk to him about my problems. he is always busy writing the next book in his history gang series. he can’t see that life is about the here and now, not the past. francisca says that i could probably get a job working in a bar in copacabana beach. she will have to work on her parents’ farm. perhaps we would be able to save up enough money to get back to the uk.

it would be great to have a break from exeter, and i’m sure my portuguese would improve by living in brazil. i told mr robson, my tutor, about our plans, but he wasn’t that impressed and told me to finish what i started.

Ex. 4.7.13 Reading  Write the names of these punctuation marks below:

1. _________________________________________________
2. _________________________________________________
3. _________________________________________________
4. _________________________________________________
5. _________________________________________________
6. _________________________________________________
7. _________________________________________________
8. _________________________________________________
9. _________________________________________________
10. _________________________________________________

Ex. 4.7.14 Reading  Solve these anagrams to find the names of these punctuation marks:

1. FLU PLOTS ___________________________________
2. MAM CO ___________________________________
3. C MOON LIES ___________________________________
4. COOL N ___________________________________
5. POST OR HEAP ___________________________________
6. MASS PR CHEEK ___________________________________
7. MATE NAIL KRAM COX ___________________________________
8. NOT QUIK MARES ___________________________________
9. HEH PYN ___________________________________
10. SACK BERT ___________________________________

Ex. 4.7.15  Related activities (PDF):