Punctuation Explained (with Examples)

Punctuation is the use of conventional characters (e.g., commas, semicolons) to improve clarity. In general, punctuation aids comprehension by showing a reader which words are grouped and where to pause.

The main punctuation characters are:

Punctuation (Apostrophes)

Apostrophes are used:
  • To show possession
  • (e.g., one dog's kennel, two dogs' kennel)
  • In time expressions
  • (e.g., a day's holiday, two weeks' pay)
  • In contractions
  • (e.g., can't, don't, isn't)
Apostrophes are not used:
  • To show plurals
  • (e.g., three dog's , two patio's )
  • Randomly before the letter s
  • (e.g., She like's cakes. )
Read more about using apostrophes.

Punctuation (Colons)

Colons are used:
  • To extend a sentence to expand on something previously mentioned in the sentence
  • (e.g., I need just one personal trait: loyalty.)
  • After an introduction
  • (e.g., I've seen the following: rust, slime, and a rat.)
  • In references, times, and titles
  • (e.g., Read Genesis 1:1 before 09:00.)
  • With quotations
  • (e.g., He said: "Laugh at yourself first, before anyone else can.")
Read more about using colons.

Punctuation (Commas)

A comma is used:
  • After setting the scene at the start of a sentence
  • (e.g., Now she is wiser, she understands.)
  • After transitional phrases like However, Consequently, or As a result
  • (e.g., However, I now agree with you.)
  • After an interjection
  • (e.g., Crikey, it's true!)
  • Before a conjunction joining two independent clauses
  • (e.g., She likes pies, and she likes cakes.)
  • As parentheses
  • (e.g., Peter and John, who live next door, love my pies.)
  • To separate list items
  • (e.g., bread, honey, and jam)
  • After a long subject if it helps the reader
  • (e.g., A, B, C, and D, are essential qualifications.)
  • In numbers
  • (e.g., 2,515 )
  • With the vocative case
  • (e.g., I know your uncle, Sarah.)
  • Before a quotation
  • (e.g., She whispered, "I know.")
Read more about using commas.

Punctuation (Hyphens)

Hyphens are joiners. They are used:
  • To join the words in a compound adjective
  • (e.g., seven-foot table, silver-service banquet)
  • To join the words in compound nouns
  • (e.g., paper-clip, cooking-oil)
  • To join prefixes to words
  • (e.g., ultra-expensive, re-establish)
Their main purpose is to show the joined words are a single entity (e.g., a single adjective or a single noun). They are also useful to avoid ambiguity (e.g., a hyphen makes it clear that a paper-clip is a clip for paper and not a clip made of paper).

Read more about using hyphens.

Punctuation (Round Parentheses)

Round parentheses (brackets) are used:
  • To insert extra information (often an afterthought, clarification, or expansion of a recently mentioned idea)
  • (e.g., Set in the 17th century, The Three Musketeers ("Les Trois Mousquetaires" in French) is a novel by Alexandre Dumas.)
  • To present a plural option with a singular one
  • (e.g., Your guest(s) must leave before midnight.)

Punctuation (Square Parentheses)

Square parentheses (brackets) are used:
  • To make quoted text clearer by expanding on or replacing part of the quote.
  • (e.g., If you don't like them [my principles], well, I have others.)
  • To make it clear that terms like [sic] and [] are insertions by the current author not the originator.
  • (e.g., In your statement, you wrote: "I appraised [sic] him of the situation at about 4 o'clock.")

Punctuation (Period / Full Stop)

A period (.) (or full stop in the UK) is a punctuation mark used: Read more about periods / full stops.

Punctuation (Semicolons)

Semicolons are used:
  • In lists when the list items contain commas
  • (e.g., Peter, the officer in charge; Colin, the chef; and Heidi, my dog)
  • To create a smoother transition between sentences, particularly when the second starts with a phrase like however or as a result
  • (e.g., It was freezing; however, we still enjoyed it.)
  • Before a conjunction which merges two sentences containing commas
  • (e.g., Yesterday, it was, to our surprise, sunny; but today, as expected, it's dull.)
Semicolons are not used for introductions (e.g., I would blame one thing for my divorce; beer. It should be a colon.)

Read more about using semicolons.

Punctuation (Quotation Marks)

Quotation marks (or speech marks as they're also called) are used:
  • To show the exact words spoken or written
  • (e.g., Reagan said: "You can tell a lot about a fellow's character by his way of eating jellybeans.")
  • For the names of things like ships, books, and plays
  • (e.g., I was certain the "Spruce Goose" was too heavy to fly.)
  • To express the idea of alleged or so-called
  • (During the speech, his "mates" slipped out the side door.)
Read more about using quotation marks.

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