In written English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. We use punctuation marks to structure and organize our writing and create sense, clarity and stress in sentences. In simple words it is used in writing to separate sentences and their elements to clarify meaning. For example:
1. Woman, without her man, is nothing.
2. Woman: without her, man is nothing.
The above sentences have different meanings. The first sentence emphasizes the importance of men, while the second sentence emphasizes the importance of women.
1. Wild man eats shoots and leaves.
2. Wild man eats, shoots, and leaves.
There are sharp differences in meaning. The first sentence means that the wild man consumes plant growths, while the second sentence means that the wild man eats first, then fires a weapon, and then leaves the scene. These differences in meaning are produced by the use of punctuation marks.
There are fourteen punctuation marks commonly used in English. They are:
Name of Punctuation Mark
Full stop (Periods)
Difference between punctuation in British and American English
Only three of the fourteen punctuation marks such as; full stop/period, question mark, and exclamation mark/point are used as sentence endings.
1. Full stops/periods
(a) It is used at the end of a complete sentence that is a statement. For example:
(i) We go to hill station during summer.
(ii) He is the man who picked my pocket.
(b) If the sentence ends with an abbreviation, it will not be followed with another full stop/period. For example:
(i) This is Kapoor Chawla, G.M.. (Incorrect)
This is Kapoor Chawla, G.M. (Correct)
(ii) Last night I returned from USA.
Note: It is becoming increasingly common to omit full stops from abbreviations, especially when an abbreviation is used more frequently than the full version and is beginning to assume the status of a word: BBC, MP, USA, UNESCO, NATO, DGM etc.
(c) Question mark and exclamation mark replace and eliminate full stop/period at the end of a sentence. For example:
(i) Do you go to bed at ten every night?
(ii) And you said you did not know him!
(iii) What a clever piece of work it was!
(iv) Alas, that you should act thus!
Commas and full stops are the most frequently used punctuation marks. Commas customarily indicate a brief pause; they're not as final as periods. It is used to show a separation of ideas or elements within the structure of a sentence.
(a) It is used to separate words and word groups in a simple series of three or more. For example:
Kajal, Kartik, and Krishna went to school.
My property will go to my son, daughter-in-law, nephew, and wife after my death.
Note: When the last comma in a series comes before and, it is known as the Oxford comma. Most newspapers and magazines drop the Oxford comma in a simple series. They feel that it's unnecessary. However, omission of the Oxford comma can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. For example:
They served tea, sweets, cheese and crackers and banana pudding in the party.
Adding a comma after crackers makes it clear that cheese and crackers represents one dish. In cases like this, clarity demands the Oxford comma.
They served tea, sweets, cheese and crackers, and banana pudding in the party.
Fiction and nonfiction books generally prefer the Oxford comma. Writers must decide Oxford or no Oxford and not switch back and forth, except when omitting the Oxford comma could cause confusion as in the above example.
(b) It is used between words of the same Part of Speech, or phrases of similar character. For example:
(i) A dull, heavy sound was heard.
(ii) A tall, fair-complexioned man came in.
(iii) She entered the room, wrote a letter, and then left the place.
(c) When two independent clauses are joined by connectors such as and, or, but, etc., put a comma at the end of the first clause. For example:
(i) He is ill, and his father too is away.
(ii) He is away now, but will return shortly.
(iii) Go there, or you will be fined.
Note: When the clauses have the same subject connected by and, there is no need to use comma. For example:
I came and found him asleep.
(c) If a sentence starts with a dependent clause, use a comma after it. For example:
(i) Though he was poor, he was honest.
(ii) As I am sure to fail, I shall not ty.
(ii) Unless you speak the truth, you will be fined.
(d) Use a comma if the sentence starts with an introductory phrase. For example:
(i) Having finally arrived in town, we went shopping.
(ii) Being tired, he rested for a while.
(iii) Seeing me come, he ran away.
(e) When the sentence starts with an independent clause followed by a dependent clause, a comma is not necessary. For example:
(i) He left home yesterday as soon as he heard the news.
(ii) You will be surprised if you hear me.
(iii) It is not known when he will arrive.
(f) If a sentence starts with a preposition, there is no need to use comma. For example:
(i) In spite of his wealth he I s unhappy.
(ii) With thanks I accept this award.
(iii) Besides caning the boy he also fined him.
(g) It is used between nouns and pronouns or phrases in apposition. For example:
(i) Nancy, my sister, said this.
(ii) Akbar, the emperor of India, invaded Mewar.
(h) It is used before and after the Nominative of Address. For example:
(i) Friends, listen to me.
(ii) I ask you, boys, to behave properly.
(i) It is used to mark off noun clauses and adjective clauses, only when there is more than one. For example:
(i) I do not know where he is, when he will come, or what his present state is.
(ii) He stood first in the examination, got a scholarship, and has now joined the Kingston College.
Note: A single adjective clause is not separated from its noun or pronoun, unless it is rather lengthy. For example:
(i) The book I bought yesterday is lost.
(ii) The man who met you in the market was my brother.
(j) Use a comma after certain words that introduce a sentence, such as well, yes, why, hello, hey, etc. For example:
(i) Why, I can't believe this!
(ii) No, you can't have a dollar.
(iii) Oh, could I be there!
(iv) Try, try again.
(k) It is used to set off expressions that interrupt the sentence flow. (Nevertheless, after all, by the way, on the other hand, however, etc.). For example:
(i) I am, by the way, very nervous about this.
(ii) We, after all, won the match.
(l) It is used to set off the name, nickname, term of endearment, or title of a person directly addressed. For example:
(i) Will you, Anita, do that project for me?
(ii) Yes, old friend, I will.
(iii) Good day, Major.
(m) It is used to separate the day of the month from the year. No comma is necessary for just the month and year. For example:
(i) It was in the Sun's June 5, 2003, edition.
(ii) It was in a June 2003 article.
(n) It is used to mark off a quotation. For example:
(i) He said, "I can do it."
(ii) I asked, "Why don't you care?"
(iii) “That’s true,” said Reema.
(iv) “Would you lend me fifty rupees?” he asked.
“Well, yes, provided you pay me back next week,” I said.
(o) It is used before and after certain introductory words or terms, such as namely, that is, i.e., e.g., and for instance, when they are followed by a series of items. For example: All are requested to bring the items, e.g., sleeping bags, gloves, and warm clothings with them.
(p) A comma should precede the term etc. Many authorities also recommend a comma after etc. when it is placed midsentence. For example: Pans, spoons, plates, bowls, etc., are kept in the kitchen.
3. Semicolons: denotes a longer pause than the comma and is used between co-ordinate clauses. F
(a) It is used when they are not joined by conjunctions. For example:
(i) I have heard his statement; it is an improbable story.
(ii) To err is human; to forgive, divine.
(b) It is used when they are joined by conjunctions expressing contrast or inference like therefore, yet, then, however, so, otherwise. For example:
(i) She is ill; therefore she cannot attend the meeting.
(ii) They helped me; yet I failed in my attempt.
(iii) You did not work had; so he could not succeed.
(c) A semicolon can replace a period if the writer wishes to narrow the gap between two closely linked sentences. For example:
(i) Call me tomorrow; you can give me an answer then.
(ii) We have paid our dues; we expect all the privileges listed in the contract.
A colon denotes a longer pause than the semicolon and means "that is to say" or "here's what I mean." Colons and semicolons should never be used interchangeably.
(a) It is used to introduce a series of items. Do not capitalize the first item after the colon unless it's a proper noun. For example:
(i) Send me the following items: three black pens, two registers, one knife, fifty rubber bands.
(ii) Examples of noun are: dog, man, book, army, honesty.
(b) Sometimes it is used to introduce a quotation. For example:
(i) The host made an announcement: "You are all staying for dinner."
(ii) He said: “Of all my friends, you are the best.”
(c) If a quotation contains two or more sentences, many writers and editors introduce it with a colon rather than a comma. For example:
Dad often said to me: "Work hard. Be honest. Always show up on time."
5. Question / Interrogation Marks: are used after a direct question and replace the periods at the end of sentences.
(a) It is used only after a direct question. For example:
(i) Have you found my lost book?
(ii) Do she know him?
(b) It is not used after an indirect or dependent question. For example:
(i) He asked me where I was going.
(ii) She asked if he was present in the meeting.
(c) If the introducing verb itself is interrogative, a question mark is placed after the reported speech.
(i) Did she tell you why he went there?
(ii) Do you know who he is?
(d) Some sentences are statements—or demands—in the form of a question. They are called rhetorical questions because they don't require or expect an answer. They should be written without question marks. For example:
(i) Why don't you take a break.
(ii) Would you kids knock it off.
(iii) What wouldn't I do for you!
(e) Use a question mark when a sentence is a half statement and a half question. For example:
(i) You do care, don't you?
(f) A question mark need not be used at the end of a long request when the sentence almost loses its interrogation force. For example:
(i) Will you please arrange an early meeting of the members and inform us.
(ii) May I request you to kindly look into the matter personally and take an immediate action.
(a) It is used to enclose information that clarifies or is used as an aside. For example: He finally answered (after taking five minutes to think) that he did not understand the question.
(b) If material in parentheses ends a sentence, the period goes after the parentheses. For example:
He gave me a nice bonus (Rs.5000).
(c) Full stops/Periods go inside parentheses only if an entire sentence is inside the parentheses. For example: Please read the letter. (You'll be shocked.)
(d) An entire sentence in parentheses is often acceptable without an enclosed period: For example: Please look at the bill (you'll be amazed).
(e) Take care to punctuate correctly when punctuation is required both inside and outside parentheses. For example: You are late (aren't you?).
(f) Commas are more likely to follow parentheses than precede them. For example:
Incorrect: When he got home, (it was already dark outside) he fixed dinner.
Correct: When he got home (it was already dark outside), he fixed dinner.
7. Square Brackets/ brackets
Brackets are far less common than parentheses, and they are only used in special cases. When we see them, we know they've been added by someone else. They are used to explain or comment on the quotation. For example:
(i) "Four score and seven [today we'd say eighty-seven] years ago..."
(ii) "Bill shook hands with [his son] Al."
8. Apostrophes: is a comma placed above the body of a letter.
(a) It is used to show possession. For example:
(i) Mary's hat
(ii) Men’s duty
(iii) Mrs. Chawala's house
(b) Many common nouns end in the letter s (lens, cactus, bus, etc.). So do a lot of proper nouns (Mr. Jones, Texas, Christmas). There are conflicting policies and theories about how to show possession when writing such nouns. Some writers and editors add only an apostrophe to all nouns ending in s. And some add an apostrophe + s to every proper noun, be it Haris's or Jones's. For example:
(i) Girls’ school
(ii)Mr. Jones' golf clubs
(iii) The lens’ frame
(iv) For goodness’ sake
(c) Nouns form their plurals by adding either the letter s or es (bus, buses; book, books; action, actions; etc.). To show plural possession, simply put an apostrophe after the s. For example:
(i) The buses’ time-table
(ii) The red books’ pages
(d) With a singular and plural compound noun, show possession with an apostrophe + s at the end of the word. For example:
(i) my mother-in-law's hat (Singular)
(ii) my mothers-in-law's hats (Plural)
(e) If two people possess the same item, put the apostrophe + s after the second name only. However, if one of the joint owners is written as a pronoun, use the possessive form for both. For example:
(i) Ankit and Mohit's home is far away from this place.
(ii) Ankit’s and my home is far away from this place.
(iii) My and Ankit’s home is far away from this place.
Incorrect: Maribel and my home
Correct: Maribel's and my home
(f) In cases of separate rather than joint possession, use the possessive form for both. For example:
(i) Ankit's and Mohit's homes are both lovely.
They don't own the homes jointly.
(ii) Ankit and Mohit's homes are both lovely.
The homes belong to both of them.
(g) Use an apostrophe with contractions. The apostrophe is placed where a letter or letters have been removed. For example: doesn't, it's, 'tis, can't, you'd, should've, rock 'n' roll, etc.
(h) Amounts of time or money are sometimes used as possessive adjectives that require apostrophes.
Incorrect: seven days leave
Correct: seven days' leave
Incorrect: my ten rupee’s worth
Correct: my ten rupees' worth
(i) The personal pronouns hers, ours, yours, theirs, its, whose, and the pronoun oneself never take an apostrophe. For example:
Incorrect: Feed a horse grain. It's better for its’ health.
Correct: Feed a horse grain. It's better for its health.
Incorrect: Talking to one's self in public is odd.
Correct: Talking to oneself in public is odd.
(j) When an apostrophe comes before a word or number, take care that it's truly an apostrophe (’) rather than a single quotation mark (‘). For example:
Incorrect: ‘Twas the night before Christmas.
Correct: ’Twas the night before Christmas.
9. Hyphens: Hyphens' main purpose is to glue words together. They notify the reader that two or more elements in a sentence are linked.
(a) (-) is a shorter line than a dash (--) and is used to form compound words. For example: father-in-law, out-of-date, up-to-date, 500-600 people, an off-campus apartments, etc.
(b) The distinction should be carefully noted between separate words, and a compound of the same elements. For example:
(i) He got up the ladder.
(ii) It is a got-up affair.
(c) Hyphens are often used to tell the ages of people and things. For example:
(i) I am twenty two-year-old. (With hyphen)
(ii) You have a five-year-old dog. (With hyphen)
(iii) The child is ten years old. (Without hyphens)
(iv) The child is one year/day/week/month old. (Exception)
Note: When hyphens are involved in expressing ages, two hyphens are required. Many writers forget the second hyphen. For example:
Incorrect: We have a two-year old child.
Without the second hyphen, the sentence is about an "old child."
(d) Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine. For example:
(i) Forty-seven caps
(ii) Five thousand nine hundred thirty-two rupees
(e) Hyphenate all spelled-out fractions. But do not hyphenate fractions introduced with a or an. For example:
(i) More than two-third of registered candidates did not appear for the test.
(ii) More than a third of registered candidates did not appear for the test.
(f) In describing family relations, great requires a hyphen, but grand becomes part of the word without a hyphen. For example:
(i) My grandson and my granduncle never met.
(ii) My great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War.
Dashes indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought. Note how dashes subtly change the tone of the following sentences:
(i) You are the friend, the only friend, who offered to help me.
You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me. (Emphasis)
(ii) I pay the bills; she has all the fun.
I pay the bills—she has all the fun.
(a) It is used to mark words in apposition or explanation. For example:
(i) I have lost my all – health, wealth and reputation.
(ii) Rajan, Ramesh, Ranjit – all these boys were present there.
(b) It is used to indicate a hesitating and faltering speech. For example: I –er –I – that is, I have failed.
11. Ellipses: An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is a punctuation mark consisting of three dots. Use an ellipsis when omitting a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage. Ellipses save space or remove material that is less relevant. They are useful in getting right to the point without delay or distraction.
Full quotation: "Today, after hours of careful thought, we vetoed the bill."
With ellipsis: "Today … we vetoed the bill."
(a) Many writers use an ellipsis whether the omission occurs at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle of a sentence, or between sentences. A common way to delete the beginning of a sentence is to follow the opening quotation mark with an ellipsis, plus a bracketed capital letter. For example:
(i) "… [A]fter hours of careful thought, we vetoed the bill."
(b) Ellipses can express hesitation, changes of mood, suspense, or thoughts trailing off. Writers also use ellipses to indicate a pause or wavering in an otherwise straightforward sentence. For example:
(i) I don't know … I'm not sure.
(ii) Pride is one thing, but what happens if she …?
(iii) He said, "I … really don't … understand this."
12. Quotation Marks/ inverted commas: are used to indicate the beginning and end of a quotation.
(a) Double quotation marks (“ ”) are used to set off a direct (word-for-word) quotation. For example:
(i) "I hope you will be here," he said.
(ii) You said, “He will reach here tomorrow.”
(b) They are often used to indicate a work or the title of a book. For example:
(i) The word ‘hamper’ is a verb here.
(ii) I have read ‘The Tale of Two cities’.
(c) To introduce a quotation within another quotation a single inverted comma is used at either end. For example:
(i) The teacher said to the boys, “Never say, ‘I can’t.”
Sometimes the process is reversed: For example:
(ii)The teacher said to the boys, ‘Don’t say, “I can’t.”
13. Exclamation marks/points: are used after words or sentences to express an emotion or wish or apostrophe.
(a) It is used to show emotion, emphasis, or surprise. It also expresses what is unexpected or amusing. For example:
(i) I'm truly shocked by your behavior!
(ii) What a sight!
(iii) How strange!
(iv) And you said you did not know him!
14. Slash: is an oblique stroke (/) in print or writing, used between alternatives (e.g. and/or ), in fractions (e.g. 3/4 ), in ratios (e.g. miles/day ), or between separate elements of a text. Sentence breaks are also highlighted by slashes.
(a) It is used to separate parts of internet (web) addresses and file names for some computer programs. For example:
(ii) C:/Program Files/Windows
(b) It is used for fractions. For example:
(i) 2/3 = two-thirds
(ii) 1/2 = one-half
(iii) 7/8 = seven-eighths
(c) It is used to separate the day, month, and year in dates. For example:
(i) American English = Month/Day/Year calendar
11/16/12 (November 16, 2012)
3/17/1981 (March 17, 1981)
10/05 (October 5)
(ii) British English = Day/Month/Year
16/11/12 (November 16, 2012)
17/3/1980 (March 17, 1981)
05/10 (October 5)
(d) It is used for some abbreviations. For example:
(i) w/o = without
(ii) n/a or N/A = not applicable or not available
(iii) R/C = radio control
(iv) c/o = in care of
(e) It is used to show the word "or." For example:
We sometimes use slash punctuation to indicate the word "or" between two choices. This use of the slash is rare and should be used only in informal writing.
(i) Each child will take his/her science project home tonight.
Each child will take his or her science project home tonight.
(ii) Please proofread/rewrite the story before tomorrow.
Please proofread or rewrite the story before tomorrow.
(f) It is used to show the word "per" in measurements. For example:
(i) 150 lbs/day = 150 pounds a day or 150 pounds per day
(ii) 80 miles/hour = 80 miles per hour
(g) It is used to separate lines of poetry or rhymes in regular text when a poem is written in a regular block of text, we use a slash to show line breaks. Here is a popular, short rhyme written in poetry form:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.
If this rhyme is written as a normal block of text, we use slashes to show line breaks. Keep all other punctuation the same and add one space before and after each slash.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, / How I wonder what you are. / Up above the world so high, / Like a diamond in the sky.