Dr. Judith M. Newman


When we talk we pause, wave our hands about, roll out eyes to let people know what meaning we intend. When we write, however, we can't rely on such hints. So in order to give readers clues about how to interpret the text we use punctuation.

Principle Punctuation Marks

These are used to separate, inclose, or indicate the relation between elements within a sentence:

  • Comma (,) the most common mark, indicates a separation between words, phrases, and clauses
  • Semicolon (;) separates constructions of equal rank, not with the finality of a period but more definitely than a comma
  • Colon (:) is a mark of anticipation, pointing to what follows: formal quotations, series too long or too complex to be prefaced by commas, and occationally before explanatior statements
  • Dash (—) is a mark of separation or interruption, more emphatic than a comma, less frequently used
  • Hyphen (-) is used to connect one part of a word to another, or to connect several words
  • Parentheses (  ) are used to enclose explanatory statements not built into the structure of a sentence

These are used to mark the end of a sentence:

  • Period (.) at the end of statments, after abbreviations, in decimals, and in dollars and cents
  • Question mark (?) after direct questions (How are you?) but not after indirect questions (He asked me how you were.)
  • Exclamation mark (!) is used at the end of an exclamation or a vigorously stressed sentence; often overused


  • Quotation marks ("  ") are used to enclose speech in conversation and words or statements quoted from other sources
  • Apostrophe (') is used in contractions (words made up of two words pushed together: isn't); they are used to show posession (judge's decision)
  • Ellipses (...)are used when you leave words out; for example, in quotations when you want to quote only part of what someone has said. They are also used to show a thought has trailed off...
  • Brackets ([  ]) are used to enclose words inside a quotation; they indicate that the words enclosed are the writer's own words and not the words used in the source. They are also used when you have parentheses within parentheses
  • Slash (/) most commonly used to indicate two possible words can be used in a sentence (and/or)
  • Asterisk (*) / Dagger (†) are used to signal further explanation in either a foot note or an endnote

Most questions about punctuation arise when you have a choice of one mark or another, or perhaps of using no mark at all.

There are no precise rules about punctuation (contrary to what you might have heard in school)—there is some general advice, but you will find different practices in books, magazines, and newspapers. The general practice, today, is to keep punctuation use relatively light.

Nobody remembers how to use all punctuation marks all the time. People who write a lot become familiar with certain punctuation marks, especially the common ones such as periods, question marks, and commas. They often have to look up how to use brackets, colons, apostrophes, dashes, even semi-colons.

Much of the time, punctuation is a matter of common sense: use the mark that will make the sentence sound closest to the way you speak; use the mark that feels right.

Online Resources

Click here for help with punctuation.