1. Full Stop (Period)
A full stop is also called a period in American English. Use a full stop at the end of a full sentence. Don’t put a space before the full stop; put one after. A full sentence could be short and simple, like this:
- I got there early.
A full sentence could also be longer and more complex, like this:
- Although my train arrived late, and I was sure I wouldn’t make it on time, I actually got there slightly early.
Be careful; the idea of a ‘full sentence’ is not flexible, and it depends on the grammatical structure of the sentence. For example, can you see the mistake in this sentence?
- Winters are often very cold there, temperatures can reach -40 degrees.
The first part, which ends with the word ‘there’, is a full sentence. You can’t choose to put a comma and continue; you need a full stop, or a semicolon, or you need to add a conjunction.
Learning about sentence structure, and how to make clauses into longer sentences, is important if you want to use English punctuation correctly. Full stops are also used in some abbreviations—when you make words shorter. There are three kinds of abbreviation.
One: abbreviations which never have full stops, like ‘BBC’, ‘CIA’ or ‘UN’.
Two: abbreviations which always use full stops, like ‘e.g.’, ‘i.e.’ or ‘etc.’
Three… wait, can you guess? Some abbreviations are sometimes written with full stops, and sometimes without. For example, ‘mister’, ‘doctor’, or ‘AM’ and ‘PM’ for talking about the time. Titles, like ‘mister’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘doctor’, are generally written without a full stop in British English, and with one in American English. In British English, it’s more common to write ‘a.m.’ and ‘p.m.’ in lower-case letters with full stops. In American English, it’s more common to use capital letters and no full stops. However, both forms are commonly used and you can choose which you prefer.
Commas have three main jobs. Two of them are very simple. First, use a comma to separate items in a list, like this:
- Their house has two bedrooms, a large living room, two bathrooms and a terrace.
After each item in your list, put a comma. Use the word ‘and’ between the last two items on your list:
- To make this, you’ll need eggs, flour and sugar.
You can choose to put a comma before ‘and’ or not. Both styles are possible! You also need a comma with certain conjunctions, particularly ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘so’ and ‘or’. For example:
- You can ask her, but I don’t think she’ll agree.
- I won’t be there till ten, so don’t wait for me.
The last way to use commas is also the most complicated. Use a comma—or often two commas, in a pair—to add non-essential information to your sentence. What does ‘non-essential’ mean? It means that you could remove the information, and the sentence would still make sense and have the same basic meaning. This is common when you use an adverb or linking phrase at the start of a sentence. For example:
- Apparently, he’s been suffering from depression for several years.
It’s also common when you add extra information in the middle of a sentence, like this:
- Yakutsk, which is in northern Siberia, has the coldest winters of any city in the world.
Learn more about commas with this Oxford Online English lesson: How to Use Commas.
Colons have one main job: they introduce examples, explanations or details. Look at one example:
- Rapid urbanisation has led to multiple problems: congestion, air pollution and a shortage of affordable housing for families.
Here, the sentence before the colon mentions a general idea—multiple problems—and the sentence after the colon explains what these problems are. This is very common with colons; you mention something general before the colon, then you explain it in more detail after the colon. Let’s see two more examples of this:
- I can promise you one thing: you won’t regret your decision.
- He left all of his money to his best friend in the whole world: his cat.
Semicolons are most similar to a full stop. They’re used at the end of a full sentence. So, what’s the difference? Using a semicolon shows that your ideas before and after the semicolon are connected. For example:
- He’s so stubborn; it’s impossible to convince him to change his ideas even a little.
Here, you have two sentences, but they’re both talking about the same idea: him and his stubborn character. The semicolon emphasises that the ideas are connected. You never need to use a semicolon, but they can be very useful. Using a semicolon is a very easy way to make connections between your ideas, which can help you to write clearly and efficiently. When you use a semicolon, you don’t need to use any conjunctions or linking phrases. For example:
- Companies won’t consider applications which look rushed; it’s better to apply to fewer companies, but put more time into each application.
However, there are some linking words which can be used with a semicolon, like ‘however’:
- I don’t regret it; however, I would do things differently if I had another chance.
Like commas, apostrophes have more than one job, which can make them more difficult to use correctly. Firstly, use an apostrophe in contractions to replace a missing letter. For example:
- She doesn’t eat cheese.
- You’re right about that.
You also use an apostrophe to show that something belongs to a person:
- Why have you got Dean’s jacket?
You can even connect multiple nouns together like this:
- Her mother’s cousin’s son won a Nobel Prize.
What if the word you want to use already ends with ‘s’? Here’s the rule: if the ‘s’ after the apostrophe is pronounced, then you should write it, too:
- We met at Boris’s barbecue.
If you don’t pronounce an extra ‘s’, then don’t write one; just add an apostrophe to the end of the word, like this:
- We could stay at my parents’ house for a couple of days.
Finally, you don’t generally use an apostrophe to write plurals. Even if you’re making a proper name plural, like: ‘There were four Ambers in my group’, you don’t use an apostrophe for the plural. However, there’s one exception to this. Do you know it? If you need to make a letter plural, then you add an apostrophe, like this:
- How many m’s are there in ‘accommodation’?
Hyphens are used to make compound words, especially compound adjectives. Compound words are words made of two or more other words. For example:
- It’s a six-hour flight to Mumbai.
The adjective ‘six-hour’ is made from the two words ‘six’ and ‘hour’, and you use a hyphen to connect the two parts. Here’s another example:
- It was surprisingly tasty for a five-dollar meal.
However, hyphen use in compound words is inconsistent and changing. Generally, the trend is to use fewer hyphens, but there are some cases where you need to use a hyphen every time. Compound words made with numbers almost always have hyphens. For example:
- They have a three-year-old daughter.
The adjective ‘three-year-old’ is made with a number, and it’s always written with hyphens. You also need to use hyphens when you use certain prefixes, like ‘ex-’ or ‘self-’. Words with the prefix ‘non-’ are also often hyphenated. For example:
- His ex-wife was promoted and is now his direct manager.
- Non-smokers generally need to pay much less for health insurance.
- Self-driving cars may become popular one day, but for now the technology is too underdeveloped.
If you add a prefix to a proper noun or a number, you also need a hyphen, as in: ‘anti-European’ or ‘post-1950 politics’. Finally, you also need to use a hyphen in compound numbers and fractions. For example: ‘three-quarters of the population’ or ‘twenty-three’. If you’re not sure whether to use a hyphen in a number or not, just write the number.
Dashes might look like hyphens, but they aren’t the same. First, there are two kinds of dashes, called en dashes and em dashes. En dashes have a space on either side of the dash – like this. Em dashes join onto the words before and after—like this. You don’t need to worry about this; both en dashes and em dashes do the same job. Choose one and stick with it.
So, what do you use dashes for? Dashes are used to add extra information to a sentence. Remember that commas can also do this. ‘Extra’ information means that you could remove the information from the sentence and everything would still make sense. Dashes are preferable when the extra information doesn’t fit well with the grammar or flow of the sentence. For example:
- He had escaped—or so he thought.
Whether something fits the ‘flow’ of your sentence or not is subjective. That means you can often choose whether to use dashes or commas to add some extra information to your sentence. For example:
- The number of stars in the Milky Way—including many which are undetectable—is estimated to be over 400 billion.
Here, you could replace the dashes with commas. Both versions are correct. However, we recommend choosing dashes when you can. That’s because dashes only do one job, whereas commas can do multiple jobs. Using dashes makes things clearer, because your reader doesn’t have to think about why the punctuation is there.
8. Speech Marks
There are two kinds of speech marks: single and double. Often, they do the same thing, and it doesn’t matter which you use. However, we recommend that you use double speech marks when you’re quoting what someone said. For example:
- He stood up and said “I wouldn’t do it if you paid me a million dollars.”
- “Being lucky is more important than being talented,” were the first words of her speech.
Before the speech marks, you can put a comma, a colon, or nothing. Using a comma is more common, but we recommend you use nothing, because it’s more efficient. Whatever you choose, try to be consistent! There are also different opinions about whether final punctuation—like a full stop at the end of a quote—should go inside or outside the speech marks. Again, it doesn’t really matter; the most important thing is to be consistent. Speech marks can be used in other ways, too.
Look at two examples:
- Paying 100 euros for ‘luxury economy’ was not a good idea!
- Many cities in the ‘special economic development zone’ are practically ghost towns.
Do you know why you use speech marks here? Speech marks can be used to express irony, sarcasm or scepticism. For example, putting ‘luxury economy’ in speech marks shows that there was nothing luxurious about the plane journey. In the second example, you put ‘special economic development zone’ in speech marks to express irony; if many cities are ghost towns, then there’s clearly not much economic development there. You also use speech marks when you refer to words as words. What does that mean?
Look at two examples:
- ‘Millennium’ is a difficult word to spell!
- Why did you use ‘plethora’ here?
Here, the words ‘millennium’ and ‘plethora’ are used indirectly, to refer to the words themselves, rather than the ideas. Generally, we recommend using double speech marks to quote what someone said, and single speech marks for everything else. However, you may see different styles.
Like commas and dashes, parentheses can be used to add some extra, non-essential information to your sentence. Often, the information in parentheses is a date, a name or a statistic. For example:
- Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was one of the most famous poets of the revolution era.
- The percentage of under-30s doing regular exercise was lower (45%) than that of people over 45 (52%).
Using parentheses to add statistics and figures is an efficient method to add numbers and other supporting data to your writing. You can also use parentheses to show that your reader can choose how to understand what you’re saying. For example:
- Write your suggestion(s) here.
By adding ‘s’ in parentheses, you mean that you can write one suggestion, or more than one, as you prefer. Try to avoid using parentheses to add longer ideas to your sentence. For example:
- Consumption of processed meat (which has been linked to many diseases, including colon cancer) is rising in many parts of the world.
This is not a good example of using parentheses. It would be better to add the additional information using commas or dashes instead. In this case, commas would be best.
- Consumption of processed meat, which has been linked to many diseases, including colon cancer, is rising in many parts of the world.
10. Question Marks and Exclamation Marks
Question marks are simple to use; add them at the end of a direct question, like this:
- What time is it?
- How old are you?
Direct questions can be longer, with more complex structure:
- Could you tell me how to get to the train station?
However, if you’re reporting what someone else said, then it’s not a question, and you shouldn’t use a question mark:
- She asked me how to get to the train station.
Exclamation marks add some emphasis or emotion to a sentence. For example:
- It’s so cold in here!
- There’s a snake!
Unless you’re writing something very informal, it’s generally good style to use exclamation marks minimally. Overusing them will make them meaningless. Like most final punctuation, you shouldn’t put a space before a question mark or an exclamation mark, but you do need a space afterwards.
Thanks for watching!