A guide to punctuation
The term punctuation refers to the conventional system of marks used in writing in order to display and clarify the structure of the text. The principal punctuation marks used in writing English are the full stop, the question mark, the exclamation mark, the comma, the semicolon, the colon, quotation marks, the apostrophe, the hyphen and the dash.
Full stop (.)
The full stop or period is used to end a declarative or an imperative sentence.
- Honesty is the best policy.
- Sweet are the uses of adversity.
- A friend in need is a friend indeed.
The full stop is also used in abbreviations, especially in American English.
- U.N.O for United Nations Organization
- M.A for Master of Arts
- M.P for Member of Parliament
Commas represent a short pause. They have several uses.
To separate items in a list
Commas are used to separate items in a series or list.
- He lost lands, money, reputation and friends.
- It was a long, dull and wearisome journey.
Note that we do not use commas between the last two items in a series, which are connected by a conjunction like and or or.
To join two clauses into one
Commas are used to join two clauses or sentences into a single sentence. Note that here the comma must be followed by a connecting word like and, or, but, while or yet.
- The rains descended, and the floods came.
- Men may come and go, but I go on for ever.
To show where we have dropped words
We use commas to show that certain words have been dropped instead of repeated.
- Rama got a pen and Hari, a watch. (The word dropped is got.)
- He was a Brahmin and she, a Rajput.
- John decided to order a pizza and Alice, noodles. (The words dropped are decided to order.)
To mark off a noun or phrase in apposition.
- Milton, the great English poet, was blind.
- Paul, the apostle, was beheaded in the reign of Nero.
To mark off a participal phrase
Commas are used to mark off a participal phrase from the rest of the sentence.
- Driven by rain, we took shelter under a tree.
- Caesar, having conquered his enemies, returned to Rome.
Commas are also used to mark off words, phrases or clauses let into the body of a sentence, provided they do not greatly interrupt the flow or meaning of the sentence.
- He did not, however, gain his object.
- His behaviour, to say the least, was very rude.
To mark off a reporting verb
A comma is used to mark off a reporting verb from a piece of direct speech.
- She said, “I love you.”
When the reporting verb follows a piece of direct speech, we usually put a comma instead of a full stop before the closing quotation mark.
- “I love you,” said Nivedita.
To separate a non-defining relative clause
A non-defining relative clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
- Sailors, who are generally superstitious, say it is unlucky to embark on a Friday.
When subordinate clauses begin sentences, they are often separated by commas.
- If it rains, the match will be cancelled.
1. Colons are used before explanations.
- I decided to buy some clothes: I had nothing to wear.
- She decided to stay at home: it was raining.
2. To quote famous sayings.
- In the words of Murphy’s Law: ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.’
3. To introduce a list
- There are three tenses in English: the present tense, the past tense and the future tense.
Note that a colon is not preceded by a white space. It is also not followed by a dash or hyphen. In British English, it is unusual for a capital letter to follow a colon. In American English, colons are more often followed by capital letters.
Dashes are common in informal writing. They can be used in the same way as colons, semi-colons and brackets.
- There are four Vedas – the Rig, the Yajur, the Sama and the Atharva.
Quotation marks (” “)
We use quotation marks when we quote direct speech. Single quotation marks are more common in British English and double quotation marks in American English.
- “Can I help you,” she asked.
Apostrophe ( ‘)
We use apostrophes for three main reasons.
Apostrophes are used in writing contractions to show where we have left letters.
- It’s = it is or it has
- Can’t = cannot
- I’d = I would/had
Apostrophes are used in writing most possessives.
- John’s mother
- children’s store
- three miles’ walk
- my parent’s wedding
Note that apostrophes are not used in writing the possessive forms of most pronouns.
- Whose bag is this?
- That is yours.
- The bull lowered its head.
Question mark (?)
Question marks are used, instead of full stops, after direct questions.
- Have you received my letter?
Note that the question mark is not used after an indirect question.
- He asked me if I had received his letter.
Exclamation mark (!)
This is a punctuation mark placed at the end of an utterance which is an exclamation or which merely expresses a strong emotion.
- What a pity!
- I can’t believe it!