So you need to write something but, to be honest, it’s not your favourite thing to do.
What’s more, you’re paranoid about getting something wrong. Particularly when it comes to punctuation.
Let’s face it, there are a ton of rules about which punctuation mark goes where and why (and why not when it doesn’t appear).
People get hung up on everything from whether to place a comma before and to how to deal with full stops around brackets (parentheses).
It’s stress you don’t need.
Many punctuation rules feel pretty arbitrary.
Quite a few seem at odds with what you learnt at school.
And writing for an international audience? Some things are different between UK/International English punctuation and the norms in US English.
Don’t worry, we’ve got you.
In this short guide to the most common punctuation marks, we’ll cover the main things you’ll need to know on a daily basis.
This is not an exhaustive list (whole guides are written on this stuff). But it should do as a basic cheat sheet you can refer back to when you’re unsure.
Commas are one of the few punctuation marks that people get bent out of shape over. Well, the use (or not) of the Oxford comma in particular.
An Oxford comma (aka the serial comma) is a comma used before the last and in a list.
Some people always use them. Some never use them.
As a rule of thumb, if you have a simple list you don’t need one. Example:
For lunch I had bacon, egg and cheese.
If you want to put one in, knock yourself out.
If you have a list where some of the individual elements include something and something, use one. Example:
For lunch I had bacon, blended egg and cheese, and lashings of ketchup.
And if you have a list where leaving the comma out creates either ambiguity or alters the meaning from what you intended, pop one in. Example:
Last night I had dinner with my parents, Benedict Cumberbatch and Uma Thurman.
This could imply that Benedict and Uma are my parents. They’re not.
In the US, Oxford commas tend to be the norm rather than the exception.
What else for the humble comma?
Commas are also used to deliver a short pause or gap in a sentence.
They are used in place of brackets. Example:
The last series of Lost, which finished in 2010, was thought by many to go off the rails.
Commas are often used when you flip the order of a sentence around. Example:
After noticing the strange colour of the ham, Ellen declined the offered sandwich.
Ellen declined the offered sandwich after noticing the strange colour of the ham.
Semicolons are a bit of a halfway house between a comma and a full stop. As such, they often get ignored in favour of their easier-to-use siblings.
Used properly, they exist to join two complete sentences into one. But only if the two are too closely related to be separated by a full stop and there is no and or but already connecting them. Example:
Susan still intends to go to university; her exact plans, however, need some further thought.
They are also used in complex lists where elements have their own punctuation. Example:
Billy explained the empty fridge by claiming that he hadn’t eaten for days; that he was a growing lad; and that he was really very, very drunk.
Colons are pretty simple. The main thing you’ll use them for is to introduce a list. This may be in a sentence or as a set of bullet points.
The other main use is to expand on what went before, for example:
There are three main uses of the colon: to introduce a list, to follow expressions such as ‘as follows’ and, less commonly, to introduce speech.
If your colon is introducing a number of full sentences, each should start with a capital letter (including the first). Otherwise, lowercase the word that comes after the colon.
Never put a hyphen after a colon.
Well, they finish a sentence. Duh.
One thing, if you start a sentence inside a pair of brackets (parentheses) the full stop goes inside the brackets. If the sentence starts outside, the full stop goes outside.
One more thing, what about headlines and subheads?
In general, leave the full stop off unless it’s one of those run-in subheads that start a paragraph and, therefore, doesn’t have a line break after it.
The ellipsis (…) basically does two jobs.
The first is to show that you’ve left something out in a quotation. It should have a space on either side.
Alternatively, it can come at the end of a sentence to show that it’s unfinished. This creates an unanswered pause. It should have no space before it and no additional full stop after.
Many people struggle with apostrophes. Quite why we’re not so sure.
The first use of an apostrophe is to show ownership or possession. Example:
My dog’s favourite squeaky toy is shaped like a squirrel.
You place it before the s if the owner is a single entity (as with my dog above) and after if it’s a group. Example:
My dogs’ favourite time of day was when they got to run on the beach.
A wrinkle here is what to do when the possessor ends in an s. Generally, you’ll still add the apostrophe and an s at the end. Example:
When we were in Vienna, we visited Strauss’s childhood home.
But if this sounds downright weird, you may want to just end with the apostrophe. Example:
Socrates’ philosophy was widely adopted across ancient Greece.
Another use is in contractions – I am becomes I’m, are not becomes aren’t and so on.
We also see this in something like o’clock (of the clock).
A common confusion is between its and it’s. The possessive its never has an apostrophe. So it’s is always it is.
No, it doesn’t make sense. But that’s English for you.
The other one that gets people is the you, your, you’re triple bill. You is you the person. Your relates to stuff that belongs to you. You’re is a contraction of you are.
A quote, often ascribed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, goes along the lines of, ‘An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.’ Remember this when you’re tempted to use one.
Today, exclamation marks are used way too often simply to add a bit of emphasis. They should only be used if you can imagine the sentence or word being shouted.
Thinking of using two or more? Just don’t.
Pretty simple – they indicate a direct question. Example:
Do you mind?
However, it can get confusing in sentences that look like questions but aren’t. Example:
She asked whether my cat was feeling ok.
Finally, should you place the question mark inside quotation marks/brackets?
If it is part of the quote or the element inside the brackets, the question mark should also go inside. Example:
The teacher asked, ‘Where is your homework?’
Otherwise, it goes outside. Example:
Was the teacher angry when you said, ‘The hamster ate my homework’?
These are generally used to indicate direct speech. They can also be used to highlight a word or term for emphasis (scare quotes).
The influence of American English has meant that many writers default to double quotation marks. However, in UK English, the rule is to use single quotation marks for speech and quotes. Then, if you have speech within speech, use double quotation marks for that.
In the US, it’s the opposite.
So, where to place punctuation? In the UK, if the punctuation is part of the quotation, it goes inside the quotation marks. If not, it goes outside.
The US is a bit different. Periods and commas always go inside. Everything else (colons, semicolons, question marks, exclamation points) uses the same rule as the UK.
Material in brackets generally adds a little more context to what’s in the rest of the sentence. It’s often also employed to deliver an aside. Sometimes, brackets are used instead of a pair of commas.
It is possible to have brackets within brackets but it tends to look fussy so probably best to avoid if possible. (You could use a dash instead.)
Normally, you don’t need a comma before your brackets but you may add one after if the sentence warrants it. Also, check out the full stops section above for where to put them.
Square brackets are usually used to add an external voice or to shorten a longer direct quotation by summarising part of it. Example:
They [the free-spirited writers] were saying a hard no to old-school punctuation rules.
So, there are three types of little horizontal line: a hyphen (-), an en dash (–) and an em dash (—).
A hyphen is mainly used for creating compound words (that have their own meaning when paired), particularly where they are modifiers. Example:
Our first class discussion will start at 9am in the lecture theatre.
Is different from
The 9am session resulted in an absolutely first-class discussion.
The hyphen just clarifies things a bit.
It’s also used to show words that have been broken at the end of a line due to lack of space.
The en dash (named because it is the width of the letter n) is used for parenthetical information (the same way that brackets are). It gets a space either side. It is also sometimes used instead of a comma.
En dashes are also used in place of to in ranges of numbers (eg, 30–35 minutes in a moderate oven).
An em dash (go on, guess why it’s called that) is more commonly used in the US but has become increasingly trendy in the UK. It does the same job as the en dash but shouldn’t have a space either side.
How you treat bullets is to an extent a matter of personal preference and individual style.
Read one style guide and you’ll be told to capitalise every bullet and put a full stop after each one too. Others will tell you to punctuate the whole thing as one sentence and place a semicolon at the end of each (and a full stop after the final one too).
Frankly, it’s a mess.
At Considered Content, we tend to uppercase the initial letter of each bullet and we don’t use closing full stops (even on the final bullet). But that’s just us.
Traditionally, abbreviations were separated by full stops (so we’d have N.A.T.O. for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Today, it’s more common to write them without (NATO, CEO, IBM etc).
However, a relatively new approach is to simply capitalise the first letter when the organisation is commonly referred to by its acronym. So, Nato instead of NATO, Nasa instead of NASA but the World Health Organisation remains WHO.
In the UK, there is also a move to avoid using full stops for lowercase abbreviations such as eg, ie, pm, etc.
In the US, we’ll tend to see full stops (periods) and often a comma for good measure (e.g., like this).
In the UK (and increasingly commonly in the US) headlines and subheads use sentence case. So, you capitalise the first letter and leave off the concluding full stop.
Title case, which capitalises just the main words, is only really seen in the US these days and can look a little old-fashioned.
If you need to convert a headline to title case, use this tool. You can thank us later.
If you have a multi-sentence headline, you may want to use full stops. Your call.
We hope you found this brief guide to punctuation useful. It is, of course, partial (other punctuation marks are available).
If you want to go deeper, you’ll need a more comprehensive manual or an off-the-shelf style guide.
If you’re in the US, you’re lucky. The Chicago Manual of Style is all you need. In the UK, the options aren’t so great. A good free resource is the BBC’s style guide. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation is also worth a look.
Jason Ball is the founder and managing director at Considered. With a multi-decade career in B2B marketing, he’s worked with world-leading brands such as Adobe, Google, EY and Cisco together with niche specialists in technology, manufacturing and professional services.