The rules of punctuation can be quite complex, especially when it comes to the use of the colon, semicolon, dash, ect. when used in conjunction with each other. However, most of us will just avoid the confusion.

I have included a page which gives every known rule on this subject matter, but please don’t get burdened by all the tricky stuff. Print a copy for yourself, but be aware that the more difficult stuff will only be useful to the advanced students.

     The period (Full Stop)

  •  marks the end of a sentence (except for questions and exclamations). A sentence is a complete unit of sense which can         stand on its own . (It may consist of only one word as in greetings like "Hello.", commands like "Stop." [where the subject        you is understood], and replies like "No.".)
  • To test whether a group of words is a sentence, you should read it out to yourself; if it  conveys a complete meaning, then you can probably put a period at the end.
  • indicates an abbreviation. e.g. Co. etc. i.e. a.m.

      Capital letters are used

  •  at the beginning of every sentence.
  • at the beginning of a passage of direct quotation (see subsection 6 below)
  • for proper nouns (i.e.,names of particular persons, places, things) and for months of the year and days of the week: e.g. Jane, Africa, Sydney, July, Tuesday
  • for adjectives derived from proper nouns (especially places and people: e.g. English, French, Victorian ( except for common compounds like venetian blinds and brussels sprouts, where the adjective has lost its original emphasis).
  • for the first and all main words in any kind of title: books, plays, poems, ( e.g. Far from the Maddening Crowd), films, newspapers, magazines (e.g. Timenames of ships, houses, a person's title (e.g., Prime Minister of Australia) the titles of institutions and businesses. abbreviations of titles (e.g. Gov.).
  • at the beginning of each line of verse (except in some modern poetry).
  • for the pronoun I. 
  • for He, His, when referring to God.

      The question mark

  • This is used for all direct questions: e.g.What are you doing? You will come, won’t   you? but not for reported questions:            e.g. I wonder what he is doing. Ask him who did it. (Don't forget the question mark at the end of a long question.)

       The exclamation mark

  • This expresses some kind of astonishment or a sharp outburst or comment: e.g. Fire! Fire!
  • It can also add a tone of humor or sarcasm: e.g. And he was supposed to be an expert! (Don't overuse it and don't use more than one at a time.)


  • The following rules cover the main uses. (You will find that there are many other optional uses which lend emphasis or            give a finer point of meaning.)

      Commas are used

  • to separate words, phrases or clauses in a list.
  • a series of nouns: e.g. His room was littered with books, pens, papers and maps.
  •  a series of adjectives: e.g. He was a quiet, gentle, unassuming man. When one adjective describes the other or when the last adjective is "closely linked with its noun, there should be no comma: e.g. the deep blue sky; a new state college , Contrast a thin, white hand)
  • a series of adverbs: e.g. Try to work quickly, confidently, and efficiently.
  • a series of phrases: e.g. We spent an enjoyable day visiting the zoo, rowing on the lake, and picnicking in the park.
  • a series of verbs or clauses: e.g. He took a long run-up, slipped on the wet grass and landed short of the sandpit.                          (It is better with larger groupings to put a. comma before the and.)
  • The comma is also used between two longer clauses joined by and or but, especially when the subjects of the clauses  are different.
  • before and after a phrase or clause in apposition (i.e., when placing a group of words after a noun to give a fuller explanation of it) e.g. Wally Lewis, the football player, scored a try
  • to mark off the person(s) addressed or called to (whether by name or other description): e.g. Look out, Fred! Now,  you fool, you've missed it.
  • to bracket off insertions or afterthoughts. (Dashes or parentheses may also be used for this.) Use commas on either side            of the parenthetical expression: e.g. Sunday, as everyone knows, is a day of rest.
  • to mark off interjections-words like yes, no, please:  e.g. Well, er, no, I don't think I will, thank you.
  • before "tagging on" clauses like don't you? or isn't it?: e.g. They played well, didn't they?
  • to mark off a participial phrase: e.g. Seeing the lion, Caesar screamed.
  • to mark off adverbial clauses, especially when they start the sentence, except when they are very short. (Adverbial clauses are introduced by words like although, if, because.) e.g. Although you may not realize it, you need two commas in this sentence, because it contains two adverbial clauses.
  • to mark off an adjective clause which merely comments but does not limit or define: e.g. The boys, who were fooling, were punished. (Without commas this would mean that only the boys who were fooling were punished; with commas, it means that all the boys were fooling and were punished. The commas act like brackets.) Note: Don't put a comma between the subject and its verb: Wrong: What he wrote, was illegible. Right: What he wrote was illegible.

     Punctuating- conversation/direct quotations

  •  Start a new paragraph every time the speaker changes.
  • The words spoken and the accompanying punctuation are enclosed in quotation. Note: The punctuation comes inside the quotation marks.
  • Even though the words spoken would form a sentence on their own, they are followed by a comma (not a period) when the   verb and its subject come afterwards: e.g. "We are going away," they said. but "Where are you going?" he asked.
  • When the subject and verb start the sentence, they are followed by a comma, and the first word spoken has a capital letter: e.g. They said, "We are going away."
  • When the quotation is interrupted to insert the verb and its subject, one comma is needed when breaking off the speech  and another immediately before continuing it. The next word within the quotation marks has a small letter, because it is continuing the quoted sentence: e.g. "I am not," he stressed, "particularly happy about this." Consider the following two sentences: "I am going," he said. "Do not try to stop me." In this situation, there are two sentences, so the second     sentence begins with a capital letter. 

     Quotation marks are also used

  •  when quoting someone's words or from a book: e.g. "To be, or not to be" begins a famous speech from Hamlet. Take care, when quoting from a book/play/poem, that your own sentence leads naturally into the quotation.
  • when using foreign words, jargon or slang; or to show that a word is used sarcastically. (In print these might be italicized.)

     The apostrophe is used

  •  to denote possession with nouns. The singular noun takes an apostrophe followed by an s. Plurals ending in s add an apostrophe after the final s. e.g. a lady's hat, the ladies' hats (i.e., the hats of the ladies) a week's holiday, six weeks' holiday an ass's burden, Jones's cap, the Joneses' house (i.e., the house of the Joneses) Be careful with unusual plurals (like men, children, mice) which are treated as if they are singular: e.g. men's coats, women's rights, children's toys (never write mens'  or childrens')
  • For proper nouns ending in a sounded e and an s or in s vowel s (e.g., Euripides, Moses) add the apostrophe after the s:  e.g. Ulysses' adventures, Archimedes' principle, Jesus' mother

           (Note-also-for goodness' sake.)

  • In units involving two or more nouns or in a compound noun or phrase, put the apostrophe on the last word only:                    e.g. William and Mary's reign, my father-in- law's house This does not apply if there is no joint possession: e.g. my         brother's and my sister’s birthdays.) Note: The apostrophe is not used in these words: yours, hers, ours, theirs or its           (when it means belonging to it). (Would you write hi’sfor his?) It is, however, used in one's  (belonging to one).
  •  to indicate a contraction. The apostrophe is placed where the letter(s) have been omitted: e.g. didn’t, can’t, they’re, you’re, I’d   (But note: shan't, won't.)
  • for the plural form of certain letters and figures, although this apostrophe is now often omitted: e.g. the three R's,                      P's and Q's, in the '60's, if’s and but's

       Dashes and parentheses

  • Two dashes are used when breaking off a sentence to insert an afterthought or an explanatory comment or short list:               e.g. In August last year-I was with my family at the time-I had a serious accident. Nothing-food, plates, cutlery, pans- could       be left unattended.
  • A single dash may be used when breaking off a sentence for an abrupt change of thought or when "tagging on" another construction: e.g. The following day we had better luck - but that is another story.
  • to emphasize a repeated word: e.g. The new regime imposed rigid laws-laws which the police found difficult to enforce. 
  • When bringing together a number of items: e.g. Toothbrush, can-opener, matches, soap pads- these are often forgotten by inexperienced campers.
  •  with a colon to introduce a long quotation or list, although this usage is now dying out (this is called a pointer:-).
  •  to signify missing letters: e.g. D-it!
  • Parentheses (always two) are, like dashes, used for "asides" and for enclosing additional information: e.g. Citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes) are rich in vitamin C.
  • (Parentheses, like dashes, often carry the meaning of "that is" [i.e.] or "namely.")
  •  (If there is a parenthetical phrase at the end of a sentence, the period follows the parenthesis; if the parentheses enclose           a sentence, the period comes inside.)

          The hyphen is used

  •  when attaching a prefix (e.g., self-explanatory, anti-hero) and especially when confusion might result as with “re-sign"      and "re- form” 
  • when forming a compound word from two or more other words: e.g. son-in-law, a half-eaten biscuit, a couldn't-care-less attitude, red-hot- smoking-jacket.  Distinguish "fifty-odd people" from "fifty odd people.

        The semicolon is or may be, used

  • to separate clauses which could stand as sentences but which are closely related,  especially: when the second clause expands or explains the first: e.g. Neither of us spoke; we merely waited in silence to see what would happen.
  • when the clauses describe a sequence of actions or different aspects of the same topic: e.g. There was a sharp, bracing air; the ground was dry; the sea was crisp and clear.
  • before independent clauses beginning with even so, so, therefore, for instance nevertheless, then, etc.: e.g. He took great      care; even so, he made a few errors.
  • to suggest a contrast: e.g. I like swimming; my sister hates it. (In all the above examples periods could have been used but  would have been too abrupt.) Note that the clause after the semicolon always begins with a small letter.
  • to mark off a series of Phrases (or clauses) which themselves contain commas. e.g. You will need the following: some scrap paper; a pen, preferably blue or black; some envelopes; and some good, white, unlined writing-paper.

        The colon is used

  • to introduce a list , long quotation or speech: e.g. Speaking at Caesar’s funeral, Antony addresses the crowd: "Friends, Romans, countrymen….”

        It may also be used:

  • before a clause which explains the previous statement. The colon has the force of the word "namely" or "that is":
  • to express a strong contrast: e.g. God creates: man destroys.
  • to introduce a climax or concluding clause:e.g. After pondering the choices before him, he came to a decision: he joined the to make a pointed connection: e.g. Jeremy became a director in just three months: his father was the chief shareholder.