A complete guide on punctuation rules and punctuation marks in the English language. Here you will find how and when to use different punctuation marks with useful examples and ESL images.
What is Punctuation?
Punctuation is a set of specific marks or symbols that we used to express the meaning of our sentences clearly and to make the flow of the text smooth. It shows us where we need to pause, it separates ideas from each other, it lets us know that a certain phrase is quoting someone else’s words, and has a dozen other important functions.
To understand just how necessary and significant punctuation is, imagine the world where it doesn’t exist. In that world, we wouldn’t have known where one sentence ends and the other one starts because there wouldn’t be any full stops. We also would have had no idea if a certain phrase is a question or not, since there would be no question marks. And how would we show our emotions in writing if we didn’t have exclamation marks and ellipses? In short, punctuation, when used properly, makes things easier for everyone, both writers and readers.
In the English language, there are fourteen main punctuation marks, and here is the list of them. Some punctuation marks, such as the full stop and quotation marks, are known by more than one name among English speakers.
- Full Stop / Period (.)
- Comma (,)
- Question Mark (?)
- Exclamation Mark (!)
- Quotation Marks / Speech Marks (” “)
- Apostrophe (‘)
- Hyphen (-)
- Dash (– or —)
- Colon (:)
- Semicolon (;)
- Parentheses ()
- Brackets 
- Ellipsis (…)
- Slash (/)
Full Stop / Period (.)
This is the most popular punctuation mark because you simply cannot write even a single sentence without using it. So, there are two most common uses of a full stop: to indicate the end of a sentence, or to follow an abbreviation.
- We feed this cat every evening.
- Mr. Brown does not agree with these new rules.
A comma is often used to separate different ideas in a sentence. However, it has many other uses as well, and it is important to remember them as well. Some of the most common comma rules follow.
1) A comma separates two sentences when putting a full stop between them seems to create an unnecessarily long pause.
- Mark went by bus, and Allison took a train.
2) Commas separate items in a list.
- We bought apples, peaches, grapes, and oranges in the fruit market.
3) A comma is used after an introductory word or phrase, such as at the end of the day, however, in contrast, etc.
- Nevertheless, we managed to get home until sunset.
4) If you have a tag question at the end of your sentence, you also need to use a comma to distinguish it from the rest of the sentence.
- You are going to the party this weekend, aren’t you?
5) If you are directly addressing someone, you need a comma.
- James, what are you doing tomorrow after school?
Question Mark (?)
- How old are you?
- Do you remember what I told you about yesterday?
Exclamation Mark (!)
An exclamation mark added at the end of a sentence shows emphasis. Depending on the meaning of the sentence, it can indicate anger, happiness, excitement, or any other strong emotion.
- Leave me alone!
- I’m so happy to see you!
- I can’t wait to go to Paris!
Quotation Marks / Speech Marks (” “)
As their name suggests, quotation marks indicate direct quotations. You can also use them to show that a word or a phrase is being used ironically, or for titles of articles, book chapters, episodes of a TV-show, etc.
- “You’ll never believe what happened last night,” Jerry said.
- In his article “How To Succeed in Everything You Do”, Mary Smith gives her readers three valuable pieces of advice.
An apostrophe has two very important uses. Firstly, it can be used in contractions in place of omitted letters. Secondly, it can show possession.
- You don’t have to go to the supermarket if you don’t want to.
- We need to invite both of Sally’s sisters to the party.
Even though it looks very similar to a dash, a hyphen has very different uses. It’s most commonly used to create compound words.
- He is a very self-confident person.
- Due to various factors, Susan decided to work part-time this summer.
Dash (– or —)
There are two different dashes, the en dash and the em dash, the first being slightly shorter than the second one. The en dash is usually used to show a connection between two things, as well as a range of numbers, years, pages, etc.
- London–Paris flight takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
- For tomorrow’s lesson, I need to read pages 45–78 of the textbook.
The em dash can replace a comma, a colon, or parenthesis. You can also use it to put emphasis on the ending of your sentence.
- This year, Mark has traveled to quite a few countries—Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Georgia, and Greece.
- Her answer was loud and clear—No!
A colon is a punctuation mark you will come across very often in different circumstances. It can introduce an example, a list, an explanation, or a quotation. Or, you can also use it to emphasize a certain point.
- There are two things you can do: continue being miserable or move on with your life.
- There’s only one person in the world who can tell you what you should do: you.
A semicolon is a punctuation mark that creates a longer pause than a comma but a shorter pause than a full stop. So, it can be used to create a pause between two independent clauses that are still closely related to each other.
- My mother is a doctor; my father is an accountant.
- Jane has spent the whole morning trying to figure out what to wear; she ended up choosing the first outfit out of all that she tried on that day.
In most cases, you will see additional information in parentheses. Usually, it can be omitted without creating any confusion for the reader.
- My young daughters (aged 5 and 7) just love playing with our neighbors’ dogs.
Brackets are, in a way, similar to parentheses. However, they are mostly used in academic writing and when presenting quotes. For instance, the writer can add extra information or fix mistakes in brackets, without changing the original quotation.
- The witness said, “I could hear him [the policeman] but I couldn’t see him”.
An ellipsis creates an intriguing and mysterious atmosphere in the text. In addition, it can be used to show that some letters or even words are omitted.
- So… what happened next?
- She was smart, funny and pretty but… something still felt wrong.
- For this recipe, you will need 1/2 glass of water and 3/4 glass of flour.
- The car was going as fast as 120 km/h.
- You need to press the On/Off button.
Punctuation Rules | Infographic
British vs American Style
Though British and American English have lots of similarities, when it comes to punctuation styles, there are some differences. Of course, if you’re just chatting with friends who live in either Canada or New Zealand, you don’t have to worry about them not understanding or judging you. However, if you’re preparing an official and formal report that will be read by English speakers from a specific part of the world, you should be careful. Some of the most important differences are listed below.
Quotations within quotations are treated differently in British and American English. According to the American style, you need to put double quotes (” “) to show the initial quotation and single quotes (‘ ‘) for any quotations within it. The British approach is completely the opposite: single quotes for the initial quotation and double quotes for everything within it.
Another significant difference is that the American style puts commas and full stops inside the quotation marks, while the British style doesn’t.
- “I can’t go out tomorrow,” John sighed, “because, as my dad said, ‘you’ll go out when hell freezes over.'” (American style)
- ‘I can’t go out tomorrow’, John sighed, ‘because, as my dad said, “you’ll go out when hell freezes over”‘, (British style)
In American English, you should follow people’s titles by a full stop: Mr, Ms, Mrs. However, this isn’t the case with British English. There, you would simply write, Mr, Ms, or Mrs.
If you’re following the American style, you need to separate hours from minutes when writing about time with a colon. The British style, however, states that you need to use a full stop. So, in America, you would say that the time is 11:20, while in Britain, you would say that it’s 11.20.
Differences Between Punctuation in British and American English | Infographic