English Punctuation Guide - English Writing Lesson


Hi, I’m Kasia.

Welcome to Oxford Online English!

In this lesson, you can learn about English punctuation.

Youll see the most common punctuation marks in English, what theyre called, and how

to use them.

This lesson has many sections.

If you want, you can just watch the sections you need.

Using punctuation correctly is critical for your English writing.

Punctuation problems can make a bad impression or lead to misunderstandings.

If you need to improve your English writing, check out our website: Oxford Online English

dot com.

There are many free lessons to help you with your writing, or you can take writing lessons

with one of our professional teachers.

But first, let’s look at one of the most basic English punctuation marks.

A full stop is also called a period in American English.

Use a full stop at the end of a full sentence.

Don’t put a space before the full stop; put one after.

A full sentence could be short and simple, like this: ‘I got there early.’

A full sentence could also be longer and more complex, like this: ‘Although my train arrived

late, and I was sure I wouldn’t make it on time, I actually got there slightly early.’

Be careful; the idea of afull sentenceis not flexible, and it depends on the grammatical

structure of the sentence.

For example, can you see the mistake in this sentence?

The first part, which ends with the wordthere’, is a full sentence.

You can’t choose to put a comma and continue; you need a full stop, or a semicolon, or you

need to add a conjunction.

Learning about sentence structure, and how to make clauses into longer sentences, is

important if you want to use English punctuation correctly.

Full stops are also used in some abbreviationswhen you make words shorter.

There are three kinds of abbreviation.

One: abbreviations which *never* have full stops, likeBBC’, ‘CIAorUN’.

Two: abbreviations which *always* use full stops, like ‘e.g.’, ‘i.e.’ oretc.’

Threewait, can you guess?

Some abbreviations are sometimes written with full stops, and sometimes without.

For example, mister, doctor, or AM and PM for talking about the time.

Titles, likemister’, ‘Mrsordoctor’, are generally written without a full stop

in British English, and with one in American English.

In British English, it’s more common to write AM and PM in lower-case letters with

full stops.

In American English, it’s more common to use capital letters and no full stops.

However, both forms are commonly used and you can choose which you prefer.

Commas have three main jobs.

Two of them are very simple.

First, use a comma to separate items in a list, like this: ‘Their house has two bedrooms,

a large living room, two bathrooms and a terrace.’

After each item in your list, put a comma.

Use the wordandbetween the last two items on your list: ‘To make this, youll

need eggs, flour and sugar.’

You can choose to put a comma beforeandor not.

Both styles are possible!

You also need a comma with certain conjunctions, particularlyand’, ‘but’, ‘so


For example: ‘You can ask her, but I don’t think shell agree.’

‘I won’t be there till ten, so don’t wait for me.’

The last way to use commas is also the most complicated.

Use a commaor often two commas, in a pairto add non-essential information to your sentence.

What doesnon-essentialmean?

It means that you could remove the information, and the sentence would still make sense and

have the same basic meaning.

This is common when you use an adverb or linking phrase at the start of a sentence.

For example: ‘Apparently, he’s been suffering from depression for several years.’

It’s also common when you add extra information in the middle of a sentence, like this: ‘Yakutsk,

which is in northern Siberia, has the coldest winters of any city in the world.’

Colons have one main job: they introduce examples, explanations or details.

Look at one example: ‘Rapid urbanisation has led to multiple problems: congestion,

air pollution and a shortage of affordable housing for families.’

Here, the sentence before the colon mentions a general ideamultiple problemsand the

sentence after the colon explains what these problems are.

This is very common with colons; you mention something general before the colon, then you

explain it in more detail after the colon.

Let’s see two more examples of this: ‘I can promise you one thing: you won’t regret

your decision.’

He left all of his money to his best friend in the whole world: his cat.’

Semicolons are most similar to a full stop.

Theyre used at the end of a full sentence.

So, what’s the difference?

Using a semicolon shows that your ideas before and after the semicolon are connected.

For example: ‘He’s so stubborn; it’s impossible to convince him to change his ideas

even a little.’

Here, you have two sentences, but theyre both talking about the same idea: him and

his stubborn character.

The semicolon emphasises that the ideas are connected.

You never *need* to use a semicolon, but they can be very useful.

Using a semicolon is a very easy way to make connections between your ideas, which can

help you to write clearly and efficiently.

When you use a semicolon, you don’t need to use any conjunctions or linking phrases.

For example: ‘Companies won’t consider applications which look rushed; it’s better

to apply to fewer companies, but put more time into each application.’

However, there are some linking words which can be used with a semicolon, likehowever’:

‘I don’t regret it; however, I would do things differently if I had another chance.’

Like commas, apostrophes have more than one job, which can make them more difficult to

use correctly.

Firstly, use an apostrophe in contractions to replace a missing letter.

For example: ‘She doesn’t eat cheese.’

Youre right about that.’

You also use an apostrophe to show that something belongs to a person: ‘Why have you got Dean’s


You can even connect multiple nouns together like this: ‘Her mother’s cousin’s son

won a Nobel Prize.’

What if the word you want to use already ends with ‘s’?

Here’s the rule: if the ‘s’ after the apostrophe is pronounced, then you should

write it, too: ‘We met at Boris’s barbecue.’

If you don’t pronounce an extra ‘s’, then don’t write one; just add an apostrophe

to the end of the word, like this: ‘We could stay at my parentshouse for a couple of


Finally, you don’t generally use an apostrophe to write plurals.

Even if youre making a proper name plural, like: ‘There were four Ambers in my group’,

you don’t use an apostrophe for the plural.

However, there’s one exception to this.

Do you know it?

If you need to make a letter plural, then you add an apostrophe, like this: ‘How many

m’s are there inaccommodation’?’

Hyphens are used to make compound words, especially compound adjectives.

Compound words are words made of two or more other words.

For example: ‘It’s a six-hour flight to Mumbai.’

The adjectivesix-houris made from the two wordssixandhour’, and

you use a hyphen to connect the two parts.

Here’s another example: ‘It was surprisingly tasty for a five-dollar meal.’

However, hyphen use in compound words is inconsistent and changing.

Generally, the trend is to use fewer hyphens, but there are some cases where you need to

use a hyphen every time.

Compound words made with numbers almost always have hyphens.

For example: ‘They have a three-year-old daughter.’

The adjectivethree-year-oldis made with a number, and it’s always written with


You also need to use hyphens when you use certain prefixes, likeex-’ orself-’.

Words with the prefixnon-’ are also often hyphenated.

For example: ‘His ex-wife was promoted and is now his direct manager.’

Non-smokers generally need to pay much less for health insurance.’

Self-driving cars may become popular one day, but for now the technology is too underdeveloped.’

If you add a prefix to a proper noun or a number, you also need a hyphen, as in: ‘anti-European

post-1950 politicsFinally, you also need to use a hyphen in

compound numbers and fractions.

For example: ‘three-quarters of the population

twenty-three’ ‘twenty-three

If you're not sure whether to use a hyphen in a number or not, just write the number.

Dashes might look like hyphens, but they aren’t the same.

First, there are two kinds of dashes, called en dashes and em dashes.

En dashes have a space on either side of the dashlike this.

Em dashes join onto the words before and afterlike this.

You don’t need to worry about this; both en dashes and em dashes do the same job.

Choose one and stick with it.

So, what do you use dashes for?

Dashes are used to add extra information to a sentence.

Remember that commas can also do this.

Extrainformation means that you could remove the information from the sentence and

everything would still make sense.

Dashes are preferable when the extra information doesn’t fit well with the grammar or flow

of the sentence.

For example: ‘He had escapedor so he thought.’

Whether something fits theflowof your sentence or not is subjective.

That means you can often choose whether to use dashes or commas to add some extra information

to your sentence.

For example: ‘The number of stars in the Milky Wayincluding many which are undetectableis

estimated to be over 400 billion.’

Here, you could replace the dashes with commas.

Both versions are correct.

However, we recommend choosing dashes when you can.

That’s because dashes only do one job, whereas commas can do multiple jobs.

Using dashes makes things clearer, because your reader doesn’t have to think about

why the punctuation is there.

There are two kinds of speech marks: single and double.

Often, they do the same thing, and it doesn’t matter which you use.

However, we recommend that you use double speech marks when youre quoting what someone


For example: He stood up and said “I wouldn’t do it if you paid me a million dollars.”

Being lucky is more important than being talented,” were the first words of her speech.

Before the speech marks, you can put a comma, a colon, or nothing.

Using a comma is more common, but we recommend you use nothing, because it’s more efficient.

Whatever you choose, try to be consistent!

There are also different opinions about whether final punctuationlike a full stop at the

end of a quoteshould go inside or outside the speech marks.

Again, it doesn’t really matter; the most important thing is to be consistent.

Speech marks can be used in other ways, too.

Look at two examples: Paying 100 euros forluxury economywas not a good idea!

Many cities in thespecial economic development zoneare practically ghost towns.

Speech marks can be used to express irony, sarcasm or scepticism.

For example, puttingluxury economyin speech marks shows that there was nothing

luxurious about the plane journey.

In the second example, you putspecial economic development zonein speech marks

to express irony; if many cities are ghost towns, then there’s clearly not much economic

development there.

You also use speech marks when you refer to words as words.

What does that mean?

Look at two examples: ‘Millenniumis a difficult word to spell!

Why did you useplethorahere?’

Here, the wordsmillenniumandplethoraare used indirectly, to refer to the words

themselves, rather than the ideas.

Generally, we recommend using double speech marks to quote what someone said, and single

speech marks for everything else.

However, you may see different styles.

Like commas and dashes, parentheses can be used to add some extra, non-essential information

to your sentence.

Often, the information in parentheses is a date, a name or a statistic.

For example: ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was one of the most famous poets of the revolution


The percentage of under-30s doing regular exercise was lower (45%) than that of people

over 45 (52%).’

Using parentheses to add statistics and figures is an efficient method to add numbers and

other supporting data to your writing.

You can also use parentheses to show that your reader can choose how to understand what

youre saying.

For example: ‘Write your suggestion(s) here.’

By adding ‘s’ in parentheses, you mean that you can write one suggestion, or more

than one, as you prefer.

Try to avoid using parentheses to add longer ideas to your sentence.

For example: ‘Consumption of processed meat (which has been linked to many diseases, including

colon cancer) is rising in many parts of the world.’

This is not a good example of using parentheses.

It would be better to add the additional information using commas or dashes instead.

In this case, commas would be best.

Question marks are simple to use; add them at the end of a direct question, like this:

What time is it?’

How old are you?’

Direct questions can be longer, with more complex structure: ‘Could you tell me how

to get to the train station?’

However, if youre reporting what someone else said, then it’s not a question, and

you shouldn’t use a question mark: ‘She asked me how to get to the train station.’

Exclamation marks add some emphasis or emotion to a sentence.

For example: ‘It’s so cold in here!’

There’s a snake!’

Unless youre writing something very informal, it’s generally good style to use exclamation

marks minimally.

Overusing them will make them meaningless.

Like most final punctuation, you shouldn’t put a space before a question mark or an exclamation

mark, but you do need a space afterwards.

OK, we have a question for you: which English punctuation do you find the most confusing?

Please let us know in the comments!

Thanks for watching!

See you next time!