Punctuation can be challenging for non-native speakers of English, especially if their native language does not use the same punctuation marks as English. Even if their native language happens to use the same punctuation symbols, how they are used can be very different from how they are used in English.
First, let us go over the names of all the essential punctuation marks used in English.
All essential punctuation marks in English
|.||period (American English), full stop (British English)|
|‘||apostrophe (also called single quotation depending on use)|
|“||quotation marks (also called double quotation depending on use)|
|( )||parentheses (American English), brackets or round brackets (British English)|
|[ ]||brackets (American English), square brackets (British English)|
Some punctuation marks are used more often than others and can have multiple uses instead of just one. This is what makes punctuation difficult to master even for native speakers of English.
Most important punctuation in English
- Punctuation at the end of the sentence
- Quotation marks
- Colon and semicolon
- Parenthesis and brackets
1. Punctuation at the end of the sentence
The most basic and important form of punctuation in English is the punctuation mark that comes at the end of a sentence. Such punctuation marks consist of periods (full stops), question marks, exclamation marks, and ellipses.
A period (full stop) is used at the end of a statement:
I went to the store today.
A question mark is used at the end of a question and rises in tone at the end:
- Did you do your homework yesterday?
An exclamation mark is used at the end of an exclamation, which is a statement with strong emotion:
An ellipsis can be used at the end of a line of dialogue that trails off or fades out:
Sorry, I didn’t mean to…
This use of the ellipsis is not common in formal essays or research papers.
An ellipsis can also be used to show omission, especially when quoting a source:
- “… we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves… And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
This use of the ellipsis, unlike the previous use, is common in formal essays or research papers that quote other sources.
The importance of punctuation at the end of sentences
The punctuations that end sentences are of utmost importance because they tell the reader where a sentence ends and where a new one begins. This is dire for clear communication because if readers are unable to distinguish where a sentence begins or ends, they may misunderstand the content.
If you had text with no punctuation at the end of sentences or capitalization at the beginning of sentences, it could get confusing:
my mom and I went to the store on Tuesday we noticed the potatoes were on sale
The sentence could be interpreted in two ways:
My mom and I went to the store on Tuesday. We noticed the potatoes were on sale.
My mom and I went to the store. On Tuesday, we noticed the potatoes were on sale.
The two interpretations above have different meanings. In order to clearly communicate what you want to convey through writing, you must make sure not to forget punctuation marks at the end of your sentences.
Common mistake: combining punctuation marks
A mistake that non-native English speakers make in formal writing is putting multiple question or exclamation marks or putting the two together. In formal writing such as a research paper, you would not even use an exclamation mark unless you are quoting from a source, like a novel, that used an exclamation mark. An exclamation mark would only be used in dialogue in novels, movie or TV show scripts, and casual writing.
Proper punctuation in formal writing:
??, ???, ????, etc. → ?
! → . (unless quoting from an original source or in dialogue)
!!, !!!, !!!!, etc. → . (if part of formal writing) or ! (if part of dialogue)
?!, !?, ?!?, !?!, ??!, !!?, or any other variation → ?
Incorrect punctuation at the end of a sentence
Another common mistake by non-native speakers of English is using the wrong punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. The two punctuation marks that get the most confused are the period (full stop) and question mark. Take the examples below.
How are you. → How are you?
Will the recession affect surrounding countries. → Will the recession affect surrounding countries?
The character Guy Montag was a third-generation firefighter? → Was the character Guy Montag a third-generation firefighter?
Using a period (full stop) when there should be a question is a common mistake. Some languages such as Japanese do not use question marks at all and simply use periods at the end of questions. Hence, non-native speakers whose mother tongue does not use question marks tend to forget to put question marks at the end of questions.
The opposite case where a question mark is used where there should be a period (full stop) is usually when the writer meant to ask a question but instead mistakenly put a question mark at the end of a statement.
Other roles of the period (full stop)
The roles of the question mark, exclamation mark, and ellipsis are limited, but the period (full stop) has various uses. We collected the other main uses of the period (full stop) below.
US: Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., Prof.
UK: Mr, Mrs, Ms, Dr, Prof
US: Jr., Sr.
UK: Jr, Sr
US: George W. Bush
UK: George W. Bush or George W Bush
Abbreviations (including Latin abbreviations):
Fri., Jan., Inc., pg., vol., a.m., p.m., etc., B.C., A.D., St., Rd., i.e., e.g.
U.S., U.K. (can also be written without the periods or full stops)
3.1415, $2.74, 1,875.38
Omitting a necessary comma is one of the top punctuation mistakes non-native speakers make. However, knowing when and when not to use a comma can be difficult even for native speakers of English.
Here are some examples of omitted commas.
Between two independent clauses:
Sales dropped this quarter and the company is considering rebranding.
→ Sales dropped this quarter, and the company is considering rebranding.
Around an appositive:
Tim a professional musician loves to read in his spare time.
→ Tim, a professional musician, loves to read in his spare time.
After an "if "clause:
If you would like to sign up click the “Start Now” button below.
→ If you would like to sign up, click the “Start Now” button below.
In a serial list:
Owls prey on mice snakes fish and more.
→ Owls prey on mice, snakes, fish, and more. (American English)
→ Owls prey on mice, snakes, fish and more. (British English)
Around a parenthetical or nonrestrictive phrase:
The shirt which was dyed pink was drying in the sun.
→ The shirt, which was dyed pink, was drying in the sun. (if “which was dyed pink” is parenthetical, conveying nonessential information)
A common misuse of the comma is the comma splice. Many non-native speakers mistakenly use only a comma to split independent clauses. These comma splices can be fixed by splitting the sentence into two different sentences, using a semicolon instead of a comma, or using a coordinating conjunction along with the comma.
The old reports were properly shredded in the paper shredder, I made sure of it.
→ The old reports were properly shredded in the paper shredder. I made sure of it.
Some animals do not rear their own young, mother snakes abandon their eggs soon after laying them.
→ Some animals do not rear their own young; mother snakes abandon their eggs soon after laying them.
Please beat the eggs thoroughly, then add flour and baking soda.
→ Please beat the eggs thoroughly, and then add flour and baking soda.
To read more on the most common uses of commas, be sure to check out our article Punctuation - Missing Commas.
Apostrophes can get complicated for non-native speakers, so we broke down the most common uses of apostrophes in English below.
Possessive nouns (Mom’s, Jessie’s, the students’, the band’s):
Megan’s art piece won second place in the regional competition.
Contractions (can’t, shouldn’t, won’t, they’re, I’m, she’ll):
I can’t think of another solution to the problem.
Omission of (a) letter(s) (rock ‘n’ roll, ‘60s, ‘round, goin’):
The Roaring ‘20s was a time of prosperity for the US.
Pluralizing lowercase letters (i’s, t’s):
Don’t forget to dot your i’s and cross your t’s.
Quotes within quotes (American English):
“Mom said, ‘Microwave the casseroles for two minutes,’” I recalled.
In British English, the apostrophe symbol is sometimes used as a single quotation mark to show dialogue.
‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ he had said.
— George Orwell’s 1984 (British version)
However, some other British publications, such as the BBC, use double quotations to quote speech.
"It's good that the melt rate is low but what matters is how the melt rate changes," explained BAS oceanographer Dr Pete Davis.
— BBC’s “Antarctica's Thwaites glacier at mercy of sea warmth increase”
If you are writing in British English and unsure whether to use single or double quotation marks for speech, ask your instructor, company, or organization. This also affects the use of single and double quotation marks when there is a quote within a quote.
Check out our article Apostrophe Misuse for more information and examples on how to use the possessive apostrophe.
4. Quotations marks
A close cousin to the apostrophe, the quotation mark is primarily used to quote sources or show dialogue. Here are the main uses of quotation marks.
Quoting a source:
We all know that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” (Siekevitz, 1).
The barber said, “How would you like your hair today?”
Titles of short work:
The CNN article “What is the healthiest bread to eat?” states that two to three daily servings of whole grains can prevent type 2 diabetes.
Expressing sarcasm or doubt, differentiating the phrase, or emphasizing:
The “alleged” murderer had countless pieces of evidence against him, yet the final verdict was that he was not guilty.
Other punctuation with quotation marks
The use of periods (full stops), question marks, exclamation marks, and commas may get confusing when there are quotation marks in the sentence.
When the punctuation is within dialogue, the punctuation mark always goes inside the quotes:
The warrior said, “Let’s move on to the next town.”
Alfred asked, “Are you going to take your car?”
My older brother screamed, “Get down!”
When there is a phrase in quotation marks at the end of the sentence, however, the rules differ depending on the punctuation mark and whether you are writing in American or British English.
Question mark and exclamation mark: When quotes are around a phrase or word at the end of a question or exclamation, the punctuation goes outside the quotation marks for both American and British English.
Question mark: Did the administration say they would implement the so-called “new system”?
Exclamation mark: I heard the administration is going to implement the so-called “new system”!
Period (full stop): When quotes are around a phrase or word at the end of a declaration, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks for American English and outside the quotation marks for British English.
Period (American English): The administration is going to implement the so-called “new system.”
Full stop (British English): The administration is going to implement the so-called “new system”.
Comma: Similar to the period (full stop), when quotes are around a phrase or word right before a comma, the comma goes inside the quotation marks for American English and outside the quotation marks for British English.
Comma (American English): The administration will implement the “new system,” and the employees will get a detailed run-through of it tomorrow.
Comma (British English): The administration will implement the “new system”, and the employees will get a detailed run-through of it tomorrow.
Colon and semicolon: When quotes are around a phrase or word right before a colon or semicolon, the punctuation goes outside the quotes.
Colon: The administration will implement the so-called “new system”: It was decided last week.
Semicolon: The administration will implement the so-called “new system”; it was decided last week.
5. Colon and semicolon
Colons can be used in one of two ways: to link two independent clauses closely related in meaning, a list of items, or a single item. When a colon links two independent clauses (two full sentences), then the first letter of the second sentence is capitalized. When a colon introduced a list or single item, then the letter following the colon is not capitalized unless a proper noun.
Colon linking two independent clauses:
The detectives wanted more time to study the scene of the crime: There were too many unresolved mysteries surrounding the room.
Colon introducing a list:
The photographer needed various equipment for the shoot: two camera bodies, prime lenses with different focal lengths, and softboxes.
Colon introducing a single item:
There is only one drink Evan ever orders at the bar: a martini.
Semicolons can also be used to link two independent clauses that are closely related to each other in meaning. Unlike sentences with colons, when a semicolon links two independent clauses (two sentences), then the first letter of the second sentence is not capitalized.
Semicolon linking two independent clauses:
The professor told the university he needed an increase in funding; he was running out of money for his current research project.
Another use of the semicolon is within serial lists in which an item or items in the list contain commas already. Semicolons can also be used in lists in which individual items are longer or contain other punctuation marks. The letters that follow the semicolons in these cases are to be left uncapitalized.
When the individual items in the list do not contain commas, you do not need a semicolon:
I visited Santorini, Amsterdam, Paris, and Lisbon this summer.
When the individual items in the list contain commas, use a semicolon in place of the serial commas to distinguish the items in the list:
I visited Santorini, Greece; Amsterdam, Netherlands; Paris, France; and Lisbon, Portugal this summer.
When the individual items in the list contain other punctuation marks:
The committee is planning to set up a booth promoting the new campaign, which will be funded by last year’s budget; create a chatbot that will, according to the chairwomen, “aid visitors find what they need in an innovative and efficient way”; and automate payments with the new payment system (which they spent thousands of dollars on).
The two most common types of dashes are the hyphen and em dash.
The hyphen is used in words that are naturally hyphenated, linking two words (usually to make an adjective), words with prefixes, certain numbers, and words being split at the end of a line.
Dona was close to her daughter-in-law even after the divorce.
Linking two words (usually to make an adjective):
Lucy is a die-hard fan of that band with the good-looking vocalist.
Words with prefixes:
Tina did not even remember her ex-boyfriend’s name anymore.
Certain numbers (MLA format):
This is the twenty-seventh time you’ve mentioned the movie.
Note that in the APA style, you would use the numerical numbers for numbers above nine. In that case, the example above would read “27th time” instead of “twenty-seventh time.”
Words being split at the end of a line:
The historians had difficulty finding out the exact start date of the ancient civili-zation of Babylonia.
The em dash is used to denote interruption in dialogue, introduce appositives, and introduce parenthetical information. When introducing appositives and parenthetical information, the em dash functions much like how a comma would. Putting spaces on both sides of an em dash is also optional. Check with your instructor, company, or organization to see if there is a preferred method.
Interruption in dialogue:
Paul asked, “So for the theme of the convent—”
“We should make it semi-formal this time,” Helen interjected.
Introducing appositives (especially ones containing commas):
The PhD students — Cole, Xavier, and Olivia — made a pact that they would help each other’s research out when needed.
Introducing parenthetical information:
The CEO said he needed a new secretary — one that was quick to understand what he wants — pronto.
7. Parenthesis and brackets
A pair of parentheses (brackets or round brackets in British English) introduce parenthetical information. Parentheses are relatively easy to use because they lack overly complicated rules, unlike the comma. The main points of concern with parentheses are remembering to close your parentheses, capitalization, and punctuation.
When the content in the parentheses is an independent clause (full sentence) that is not within another sentence, capitalize the first letter and add punctuation at the end inside the parentheses:
The head chef reminded us to save our recipes. (We will be using them next month for the competition.)
When the content in the parentheses is not a full sentence and/or is within another sentence, do not capitalize the first letter and do not add punctuation at the end inside the parentheses:
The archeologist left his tools (which he didn’t know he would need back at the lab) at the site.
If your parentheses are right next to a comma within a sentence, remember to place your set of parentheses before the comma, not after.
Although Bill seemed concerned, (and was constantly calling) he never visited her in the hospital.
→ Although Bill seemed concerned (and was constantly calling), he never visited her in the hospital.
Parentheses can also be used for in-text citations for certain writing styles such as the APA format. Check the manual of the writing style you are using to see whether you need parentheses for referencing in your paper.
Brackets (square brackets in British English) introduce information in quoted material that was not in the original quote. Brackets can be used to add supplementary information, clarify a pronoun or any other word, or replace a letter or word to make the grammar of the quote fit into the context of your writing.
“She had enough and was ready to move on.”
→ “She had enough [of the lies] and was ready to move on.”
Clarifying a pronoun or any other word:
‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ he had said.
→ ‘We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness,’ [O’Brien] had said.
Replacing a letter or word to make the grammar fit into the context of your writing:
“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long.”
→ [W]e dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long.”
An asterisk denotes a footnote at the end of the page for referencing or providing additional information. Asterisks are placed after the ending punctuation (period/full stop, question mark, exclamation mark) of sentences.
Peptides can stimulate collagen production when applied topically.*
Why did Icarus fly so close to the sun?*
At the bottom of each respective page, you will find the corresponding footnote which will begin with an asterisk. Here is an example of a footnote for the second sentence about Icarus from the Greek myth:
*Icarus’s father Daedalus created wings for his son and himself to escape.
Similar to asterisks, superscript numbers also denote footnotes at the end of the page for citation. The Chicago Manual of Style allows superscript numbers for footnotes to cite the sources of your paper.
The acceleration of gravity is about -9.81m/s² according to Galileo.⁵
The corresponding footnote would look something like this:
5. Brown, Arthur. 1968. The History of Gravity. New York City: Yam Publishers.
Notice how the superscript number five (⁵) also comes after the ending punctuation of the sentence. This is not to be confused with the superscript two (²) within the sentence in -9.81m/s² which represents seconds squared.
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https://www.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/capsandabbr/abbr#:~:text=British usage favours omitting the,.%2C Ms.%2C Dr.
https://www.unr.edu/writing-speaking-center/student-resources/writing-speaking-resources/british-american-english#:~:text=British English uses single quotation,how British people do it.