All you ever wanted to know about punctuation

This is not about cricket but you may find it useful.

All you ever wanted…

or needed…

to know about



but were afraid to ask


Douglas Henderson

Copyright 2003 © Douglas Henderson

All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.



Punctuation even more than spelling marks out the less than confident writer of English; it is therefore sensible to learn to use it correctly. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, I have been very black-and-white (i.e. this is right, this is wrong etc), but it is very much a matter of judgement and taste rather than rules. However, there are certain rules, and you will be thought improperly educated if you break them.

Ideally, you start with a text which flows freely and easily; you should not use punctuation to sprinkle like pepper over an imperfect dish in order to give it flavour.

Finally, you may note that, apart from the text itself, I use almost all marks of punctuation for their own sake (i.e. as examples). You may also notice that I have avoided a superfluity of “correct” full stops and inverted commas to prevent cluttering the page; this is a matter of my judgement, as I recommend and have already shown.


(click on a topic to go straight there)

Group 1: full stops, exclamation marks, question marks

Group 2: commas, brackets, dashes.

  • Commas separating parenthetical clauses or phrases.
  • Commas with relative clauses.
  • Commas with “however”.
  • Commas in lists.
  • Commas to emphasise.
  • Brackets.
  • Dash.

Group 3: colons and semi-colons.

Group 4: apostrophes and inverted commas.

  • Apostrophes for possessives.
  • Apostrophes with names.
  • Apostrophes with plurals.
  • Inverted commas for quotation or direct speech.
  • Inverted commas for titles.
  • Double or single inverted commas?.
  • Inverted commas with special phrases.
  • Tricky problems with inverted commas.
  • Inverted commas for a sequence of dialogue.

Group 5: hyphens, capital letters.

  • Hyphens.
  • Capitals.

Group 6: paragraphs.

Group 1: full stops, exclamation marks, question marks

For native English speakers, there are usually few problems associated with these three marks of punctuation. All three signal the end of a sentence:

a full stop ends a statement

an exclamation mark ends a forceful command or, alternatively, a striking statement

a question mark ends a direct question

  • avoid excessive use of the exclamation mark. It is very tempting to use it – indeed maybe several of them together – to indicate that your remark is intended to be funny or whatever; resist the temptation!!!                                    NO!
  • in many foreign languages, an exclamation mark is always used after a command (imperative); in English, only when it is intended to be forceful:

e.g.       Stop doing that!

but       Have your passports ready, please.

  • the full stop is included in the other two. You do not need a full stop as well (or any other mark of punctuation).
  • a full stop is also used to mark the end of an abbreviation, but only if the last letter is not included in the abbreviation:

thus:     co. (for company), etc. (for et cetera), a.d. (for anno domini)

but:       Mr (Mister), Mrs (for Mistress), Dr (for doctor) and, of course, Ms

Group 2: commas, brackets, dashes

the comma is probably the most mis-used and misunderstood mark of punctuation. This is partly because it is used for several rather different functions.

Commas separating parenthetical clauses or phrases

Here, the comma – more particularly two commas – is used to separate a phrase or clause which is in parenthesis, i.e. a passing remark which briefly interrupts the sentence, clause or phrase. Dashes, as in the preceding sentence, or brackets may be used for the same purpose. Just as one would not have a single bracket but always one at the beginning and one at the end, the comma used thus must always have a second one to show where the parenthetical clause or phrase clause ends:

e.g.       The farmer, a ruddy-cheeked fellow, was a very good friend to me

The car, which I bought only yesterday, was a very good runner

Except in very unusual circumstances, it is usually wrong to separate a subject from its verb with only one comma: use either two or none.

The commonest punctuation error of all

The comma signals a brief pause, NOT the end of a sentence. DO NOT put one complete sentence after another one with only a comma separating the two:

e.g.       the cat sat on the mat, the cow jumped over the moon   NO!

Unless you want to draw attention to your statements for rhetorical effect (“I came, I saw, I conquered” – a special Latinate effect), the norm is either to separate two sentences with something stronger than a comma (see later) or to join the two with a conjunction such as “and” or “but”.

e.g.       the cat sat on the mat; the cow jumped over the moon

or         the cat sat on the mat and/but the cow jumped over the moon

However, if you have more than two separate sentences, then you put a conjunction only to join the last part:

e.g.       the cat sat on the mat, the cow jumped over the moon, and the little dog laughed

·        Commas with relative clauses

Consider these two nearly identical sentences:

e.g.       The boys, who were thirteen, were suitably punished

The boys who were thirteen were suitably punished

In the first of these, the boys were punished, and it just so happens that they were thirteen; it’s a passing remark in parenthesis. In the second, the absence of commas defines which boys were punished: only those who were thirteen.

·        Commas with “however”

The problem here is that “however” has two quite different meanings: something like “on the other hand” or “nevertheless”, but also “in whatever way”. The first meaning needs a comma after it (and also before it if it is in the middle of a sentence), otherwise a reader will take it to have the second meaning:

e.g.       However he went home (= “in whatever way he went home”)

However, he went home (= “despite this, he went home”)

Similarly, you need to be careful that you do not distort your meaning with expressions such as perhaps, therefore, or of course.

·        Commas in lists

If you’re using “and”, omit the commas before and after:

e.g.       They ate smoked salmon, prawns, caviar and cheese

·        Commas to emphasise

Because the comma marks a pause, it may give a collection of adjectives more force to suggest a pause before each one:

e.g.       This is a dirty mean unpleasant trick

This is a dirty, mean, unpleasant trick

·        Brackets

These are simply a stronger form of parenthesis, and the break in meaning may be stronger. Phrases, clauses and whole sentences may be enclosed between brackets to indicate that you are adding a qualification or explanation to the previous statement. They cause no real problems, but beware of over-using this device (I am guilty of it myself, as you can see here).

·        Dash

Use two of them to separate a parenthetical phrase or clause. In this way, they are very similar to two commas or two brackets. Alternatively, a single dash may be used at the end of a sentence to tag on an extra thought:

e.g.       That’s enough for today – or tomorrow, for that matter

Group 3: colons and semi-colons

Each of these two stops splits two or more sentences, but sentences which have a close link. For example, the second sentence may be an explanation of the first (colon), or it may be a contrast with the first (semi-colon).

The colon used to be a strong pause in the middle of a sentence, as in the Psalms:

e.g.       God is gone up with a merry noise: and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet

It is rarely used for such purposes nowadays, and the nervous punctuator is advised not to try it just yet.

  • The colon is primarily (and very usefully) used where the second sentence is an explanation of the first, or is the evidence for the first. As Fowler so neatly puts it, it is to deliver the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words.

e.g.       Hamlet is an intelligent chap: his first soliloquy is studded with Classical references

or I know what you’re thinking: the man’s a fool

or This is what you should do: go and apologise immediately

Here the colon is saying (without your having to say so) “and let me give you a reason for my saying that”, or “here is an example of what I mean by saying this”, or “this is what I mean”.

Most people know of its use in introducing lists, but this is exactly the same principle:

e.g.       You need to bring the following: pen, paper, ink, brains and patience

  • The semi-colon is exactly what it appears to be: stronger than a comma, weaker than a full stop.

It is a subtle and useful mark of punctuation. It separates two sentences, but where the second is very closely linked with the first. For example, it may be a contrast:

e.g.       He was very intelligent; he could also be very foolish at times

or She went to town; he went to the country

Alternatively, the second part may be an extension of the thought of the first:

e.g.       The crowd became hysterical; many people fainted

or I don’t know what’s the matter; everything seemed to be fine just now

In these instances, to use a full stop would suggest that your main point was now concluded, and you were moving on to the next. This would be wrong, because in these examples, the two statements are so closely linked. Note that a comma should NOT be used in these instances, unless you use a conjunction.

Group 4: apostrophes and inverted commas

The apostrophe usually shows that a letter is missing (maybe more than one).

·        Apostrophes for possessives

This most common use of the apostrophe is because, in Old English, there used to be a genitive case denoting possession (as in Latin and German). This was “–es”, but over time, the “e” dropped out and the apostrophe marked its absence.

Rule:     for singular possessive:   ‘s        (the dog’s home = the home of the dog)

for plural possessives:     s’        (the dogs’ home = the home of the dogs)

It can also, of course, mean “the dog is home”, but it’s the same principle.

·        Apostrophes with names

The same rules apply to names:

e.g.       James’s book (the book belonging to James)

or the Joneses’ party (the party given by the Joneses)

Note also:         a week’s holiday (a holiday of one week)

two weeks’ holiday (a holiday of two weeks)

Problems arise for reasons of grammar, when people confuse plurals with possessives. For a fuller explanation, see my Grammar document..

Apostrophes with plurals

The main rule is: almost NEVER! The only occasion when it is sensible to use an apostrophe to show a plural is when adding an “s” would otherwise cause confusion. In other words, when a word (or, in this case, letter) does not normally have a plural:

e.g.                   don’t forget to dot your ‘i’s

but NOT          potatoe’s, tomatoe’s etc, so beloved of greengrocers              NO!

Inverted commas for quotation or direct speech

Most people understand that inverted commas are used for quotation and direct speech. For quirks and problems, see below.

·        Inverted commas for titles

Used if referring to a book, play, newspaper etc. Particularly useful in literary/critical essays for distinguishing between the play and a character of the same name:

e.g.                   Hamlet, the tragic hero in “Hamlet”, ….

·        Double or single inverted commas?

In handwriting, double inverted commas denote direct speech (i.e. quoting the exact words somebody used, rather than reporting them indirectly). This is probably still sensible in the days of the word-processor. However, printers tend to prefer single inverted commas for passages of direct speech, because an excess of double inverted commas clutters the page. The rule is: either kind is fine, but be consistent.

The problem can arise when you need to have two lots of inverted commas:

e.g.       He said, “Have you got a copy of “The Times”?”

In these circumstances, it is probably sensible to use single inverted commas to differentiate the two different kinds. Better still to recast the whole sentence.

·        Inverted commas with special phrases

These are used especially for one either new-minted or not in common parlance. Here, the inverted commas mean something like “the so-called”:

e.g.       President Bush flew in to discuss the “Road Map” for peace.

However, do NOT do this when the phrase you are using is a cliché. If you do so, you are just admitting your error in using it!

e.g.       He looked “as white as a sheet”                                                NO!

·        Tricky problems with inverted commas

Be careful where you place an exclamation or question mark within direct speech. If part of the quotation, then it should remain inside the inverted commas:

e.g.       He then said to me, “Where are your manners?”

If NOT part of the quotation, but the main sentence, put it outside:

e.g.       Why did you say, “That’s not relevant”?

You should use some form of punctuation before introducing direct speech (probably a comma, as above); and after the quotation if it is followed by the rest of the sentence:

e.g.       “Where are your manners?” he shouted at me.

If it were not a question, you would need a comma instead. Note that the punctuation mark is placed inside the quotation marks, perhaps somewhat confusingly and contrary to apparent logic. Similarly, note the capital letter to begin the quotation.

·        Inverted commas for a sequence of dialogue

The rule for laying out several lines of dialogue is simple: new speaker, new line.

Group 5: hyphens, capital letters

I put these together because they deal with individual words rather than clauses etc.

·       Hyphens

These link two parts of different words (or part-words), but can be over-used to create a hybrid where none exists. Sometimes, they create double nouns or adjectives (man-beast / itsy-bitsy). They usually cause no real problems, but be careful you don’t write nonsense by a misplaced hyphen: a fast food-chain would have more to do with the speedy operation of nature’s grand plan than the provision of burgers; you probably mean a fast-food chain.

Do not be tempted to sprinkle words with hyphens unless they really need them, which is usually to avoid ambiguity. It is usually better to omit a hyphen unless you are sure that the word really needs one:

e.g.       semi-literate, half-baked, co-op, part-time, first-class

but       undefeated, unnecessarily, nevertheless

·        Capitals

A capital letter is used for the following:

  • on a proper noun – names of people, places, months, days of the week, countries and nationalities (N.B. this is often different in other European languages):

e.g.       Fred, Bristol, January, Monday, France

  • on adjectives equivalent to proper nouns:

e.g.       Bristolian, French

  • for the personal pronoun “I” (but no others)
  • at the beginning of every sentence, but NOT after a colon or semi-colon
  • at the beginning of quoted direct speech
  • all titles: personal, books, plays, films, newspapers etc; however, it is customary to leave very short words – unless it is the first one – in lower case (i.e not capitals)::

e.g.       Mr, Mrs, Professor, Dr, Esq. (N.B. full stop, or its absence – see above)

The Wind in the Willows

The Times

  • Also as an implied proper noun, even if any word itself is not a proper noun:

e.g.       Go down Broad Street

The Bishop was present

Group 6: paragraphs

This stands in splendid isolation at the end because it is mainly not a matter of punctuation. It is a unit of thought which should have a coherent theme or idea.

In typing, you nowadays separate paragraphs with blocks of type, with no indentation. In handwriting, you need to indent to show where a new paragraph begins. This means starting your new paragraph noticeably towards the centre from your left margin.

Especially in handwritten literary/critical essays, be careful that you do NOT indent after a quotation, unless you really mean to start a new paragraph. If you are using copious quotation, as you should be, you may have several quotations all as part of the same paragraph.

Other elements of paragraphing are to do with style and structure rather than punctuation, and that is beyond the scope of this short document.

© 2003