Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

5.10.1: English Punctuation Rules

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    English Punctuation Rules

    I.  End Punctuation 

    A.  Periods [.] (Also referred to as a Full Stop)

    1. At the end of a statement

    We went to the bookstore.
    My classes run from Monday through Friday.
    I am a teacher.

    2. At the end of an imperative sentence

    Pick up your dirty clothes.
    Don’t let the dogs in the living room.
    Skip lines when writing homework.

    3. After an abbreviation

    The package weighed 8 lbs. 6 oz.
    Mt. St. Helens is a volcanic mountain.
    I live on Phinney Ave. N.

    4. After an initial

    Donald R. Bissonnette
    U. S. A.
    T. B. Bourret

    5. In outlining after Roman Numerals, capital letters, numbers, and small letters 

    Look at all the categories in this outline for examples, please.

    B.  Question Marks [?]:  At the end of an interrogative sentence

    Do you speak English?
    Have you eaten dinner yet?
    Will you be absent tomorrow?
    How many children do you have?

    C.  Exclamation Points [!] 

    1. At the end of an exclamatory sentence

    Watch out for that car!
    What a great game!
    What a day I had!

    2. After an interjection that expresses strong feelings 

    Oh!  I can’t believe it.
    Holy cow!  That was an expensive meal.
    Right!  I don’t trust him for a second. 

    II.  Interior Sentence Punctuation 

    A.  Commas [,] 

    1.  Between the name of a city or town and the name of the state 

    Seattle, WA
    South Attleboro, MA
    San Francisco, CA 

    2. In a series

    I bought bananas, apples, peaches, kiwis, and strawberries yesterday.
    She is a wonderful, happy, beautiful, and intelligent child.
    The boy goes to school, works at the music store, helps out at home, and sings at church.

    3. Between the day and month of the year

    August 24, 1945
    September 11, 2001
    April 24, 2005

    4. To set off words such as yes, no, well, oh, etc. that come at the beginning of a sentence

    Yes, I will help you tomorrow.
    No, I don’t have any money to give you.
    Oh, I am so sorry.

    5. To set off the name of a person addressed directly 

    Thuy, please go to the board and write a sentence.
    Will you open the door for me, Cheo?
    As I said, Teresa, I want you to skip lines.

    6.  To set off adverbial clauses at the beginning of a sentence

    When the door opened, I entered.
    Although I love teaching, I don’t like correcting papers at night.
    Because the sun was shining, people were happy.
    I entered when the door opened.
    I don’t like correcting papers although I love teaching.
    People were happy because the sun was shining.

    7.  To set off introductory words and phrases 

    She comes from Vietnam.  Therefore, she speaks Vietnamese.
    As a result of the accident, she had to miss a lot of school.
    Nowadays, I don’t move as quickly as I did as a young man.
    He ate the vegetables.  However, he didn’t want to.
    Having smoked most of his life, he found it difficult to quit.

    8. To set off inserters (Inserters are words inserted in the middle or end of a sentence to help clarify meaning.)

    I want to go, but I can’t go, however.
    He doesn’t want to do it, yet he, nonetheless, will certainly do it.
    My sister smokes a lot.  I, on the other hand, have never smoked.
    I enjoy doing a lot of things.  I love traveling, for example.

    9. Direct quotations

    “I love you,” he said.
    She screamed, “Get out of my way.”
    Speaking softly, she answered the phone and said, “How may I help you”?
    “I want to quit smoking,” he said, “but I can’t.”

    10. Coordinating conjunctions followed by a subject

    I will take you to the park, and your mother will bring you home.
    You haven’t done your homework, so you can’t go to the movie with Tommy.
    It is raining out, yet the boys want to go to the beach.

    11.  Nonrestrictive clauses and phrases (Nonrestrictive clauses and phrases are used when referring to someone or something that is understood by both the writer and the reader.  In other words, there is only one possibility of whom or what the writer is writing.)

    My father, whom I loved dearly, died when I was a teenager.
    I spoke to my sons, Alex and André, about going camping next month.
    John F. Kennedy, who was the president when I was in college, was assassinated in 1963.
    The Seattle Mariners, my favorite baseball team, plays in Safeco Field.

    12. Tag questions

    You speak English, don’t you?
    He has a car, doesn’t he?
    He can come, can’t he?

    13. To set off participle phrases or reduced relative clauses

    Agreeing to pay the fine, I wrote a check for $38.00.
    The old man, stooping to pick up the book, winced because his back hurt him.
    The dishes, washed and stacked next to the sink, still need to be put away. 

    14. Following conjunctive adverbs (transition words and phrases) in compound sentences

    I have to teach every day; in addition, I have to correct papers every night.
    My sons have drivers’ licenses; therefore, they can drive cars legally.
    My mother was outgoing and loud; in contrast, my father was reserved and quiet.

    15. In the salutation of a friendly letter

    Dear Mom,
    Dear Roger,
    Dear Noonie,

    16. After the complimentary closing of a letter

    Sincerely yours,
    Love always,
    Yours truly,

    17. After the last name when it comes before the first name

    Bissonnette, Donald
    Riley, Rosanne
    Tran, Xuan Mai

    B. Semicolons [;]

    1. To connect compound sentences which are not connected by    conjunctions

    She comes from Vietnam; she speaks Vietnamese.
    It was a beautiful night; the moon was full and the stars were shining brightly.
    She cooks all kinds of food; for instance, she can cook Chinese food, Indonesian food, Arabian food, Italian food, and Brazilian food.

    2. To separate items in a series in a sentence when the sentence already contains a lot of commas for other punctuation reasons

    My most enjoyable free-time activities include working in my garden, which always makes me happy; reading all kinds of books, which helps me pass the time as well as keep me interested and knowledgeable; and watch movies, which I do at theaters, on DVDs, and on TV.

    C. Colons [:]

    1. To introduce a list

    You will need to buy the following items: books, pencils, notebooks, pens, and erasers.
    People can get all kinds of materials from a library: books, videos, DVDs, CDs, cassette tapes, magazines, professional journals, etc.
    The following people came to the party: Lisa, Linda, Veleda, Roz, Willa, and Liza.

    2. To indicate time, separating hours from minutes

    8:00 AM
    7:45 PM
    12:00 AM midnight

    3. Formal salutation in a business or legal letter

    Dear Mr. Bourret:
    Dear Ms. Baldwin:
    Dear Dr. Williams:
    Dear Professor Johnson:
    To Whom It May Concern:

    4. To introduce an appositive or an amplification of what you wrote before the colon

    The death of a child is a parent’s worst nightmare: there is nothing worse.
    The man was a miserable excuse for a son: he often robbed from his parents and was known to hit his mother.
    She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw: when I looked at her, she always made me forget what I was thinking.

    5. Between the main title and the subtitle of a book

    Deceived, Used, and Discarded: One Veteran’s Thirty-three Year Vietnam War Experience
    English Grammar through Guided Writing: Parts of Speech

    ExpressWays: English for Communication

    6. To introduce a quotation longer than three lines (indented on both sides with no quotation marks)

    In Mahdi Ahmed’s story “The Hanging Tree,” he writes:

    I walked down the main street of the village. Somehow it didn’t look quite the same as I had remembered.  But then, thirty years can change pictures in the mind which have been put there by a twelve-year-old boy.

    In the middle of the village, I found a shopkeeper who had been a friend of my father’s.  He was nearly eighty years old, but his actions were those of a much younger man.  And his eyes were bright, even though the nearly coal-black skin of his face had become deeply wrinkled over the years.

    7. In the Bible, the Qoran, and other holy books to separate chapter and verse

    Psalms 23:6
    Corinthians: 1:8

    D. Hyphens [-]

    1.  To separate words carried over from one line of writing to the next (Separate words only at the end of syllables and do not separate a syllable of fewer than three letters.)

    The man wrote his auto-
    biography in three months.
    A friend of mine wants to study anthro-
    pology at the university.             

    2. In some compound words or a series of words used as an adjective

    I love forget-me-nots.  They are such lovely flowers.
    Many times when doing business, we need a go-between to help make a deal happen.
    I am a seventy-year-old man.
    I looked up and saw a fast-moving truck heading for me

    E. Dashes [-]

    1.  To replace commas when too many commas already exist in a sentence

    I had my books, a magazine, lots of tapes – some old, some new – a DVD, and a CD.
    John, my old friend, Bob, a new friend, and Tony, an acquaintance from work – all good guys – came to the party.

    2. To indicate a series of uninterrupted pages, days or numbers

    Pages 55 - 91
    Ages 15 - 25
    April 4 - June 9, 2015

    3. In telephone numbers, extended zip codes, and social security numbers

    (401) 232-2811

    4.  To set off an abrupt break or an interruption in a thought in a sentence

    When the boy saw the chocolate, his first thought – if he even had a thought at all – was to eat it as fast as he could.
    My plan for life when I was a boy – as if I ever really had any plans ever – was to have a good time before I settled down.
    After a hard night of drinking with his friends, Henry went to bed – if you call the living room floor a “bed.”

    F. Apostrophes [’s]

    1. In a contraction

    Don’t do that.
    He hasn’t spoken to her in years.
    You mustn’t use bad language in class.

    2.  To show possession

    My sister’s dogs have a very good life.
    I spoke to the boys’ parents last night.
    Leticia’s sister speaks very good English.
    My parents’ house was in Massachusetts.

    3. To form the plurals of letters and numbers

    The boy got three A’s and for B’s on his report card.
    There are two P’s in Mississippi.
    I had five 1’s, two 5’s, six 10’s, and two 20’s in my wallet.

    G. Parentheses (( ))

    1. To add extra, often unnecessary, information

    I was with my friend Roger at a boring meeting last week.  (Is there really any other kind of meeting?)  The meeting was about teaching English to curriculum changes.

    I ate two cheeseburgers, a large order of fries, a milk shake, and an ice cream cone for lunch.  (I wonder why I am fat.)

    2. To use numbers within a paragraph or in a list

    There are a lot of reasons to study English.  (1) You need it to speak to most Americans.  (2) Everything is written in English in America.  (3) Almost all jobs require people to speak and write English.  (4) Your children will need help with homework.

    I need to buy a lot of things tonight at Safeway:

    (1)  coffee
    (2)  bread
    (3)  cheese
    (4)  beer
    (5)  meat
    (6)  milk 

    H. Quotation Marks [“ ”]

    1. Direct quote at the beginning of a sentence

    “I want to leave right away,” said the young mother.
    “Take me with you,” cried her son.
    “Why do you want to go”? she demanded.

    2. Direct quote at the end of a sentence

    Laughing, he looked at her and said, “You are a very funny girl.”
    She replied, “Maybe it is you who make me say funny things.”
    Smiling, he whispered, “I’m really a clown at heart.”

    3. Direct quote split in the middle of a sentence

    “You are,” he shouted, “an idiot.”
    “I,” said the startled boy, “am not an idiot.  You are the idiot here.”
    “I am far from an idiot,” he sneered, “very far from an idiot.”

    4. To indicate that a word is used sarcastically or incorrectly on purpose  

    I love it when my dog “sings” to me when she wants to come in.
    He did “just great” on the exam. He got a 45%.
    He “forgot” to pay when he left the store and ended up getting arrested.
    She is really so “smart.”

    5.10.1: English Punctuation Rules is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Don Bissonnette.

    • Was this article helpful?