English grammar: how to use punctuation marks

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 19/04/2022
The use of punctuation for business writing

There’s more to punctuation than full stops and capital letters. Punctuation allows us to quickly clarify who said what to whom, and whether someone likes baking and children or likes baking children! In short, it’s an aid to better communication.

Full stops and capital letters

Capitals come at the beginning of sentences, while full stops come at the end. Capitals are used for names of people, countries, boats, symphonies, books — anything you can give a name or title to.

Capitals are not used for common things, like bananas, watches and carpets. However, if it’s a Cavendish banana, a Seiko watch or a Bokhara carpet, the descriptive words do take capitals. That’s because they are the names of a banana-loving duke, a watch company and a place in Uzbekistan.

Question marks and exclamation marks

Question marks are used instead of full stops after a question:

Are these fish expensive?

Exclamation marks take the place of full stops when emphasis is needed:

“Run! The hamster’s escaped!”

Some writers use exclamation marks a lot because they believe it makes sentences exciting! After a while this becomes tiring! Especially for readers!


Commas are used to separate words in a list, but the last two items just have an ‘and’ between them:

Types of dogs include bulldogs, retrievers, spaniels and terriers.

Without commas, meanings can be dramatically altered:

“I like baking children and warm summer days,” said nanny with a smile.

Commas are also used where there would be a slight pause in spoken language:

However, the red apples were delicious.

They mark out relative clauses:

The boy’s bike, which was bought for him by his uncle, was bright red.

And show who’s being spoken to:

“Don’t touch my stuff, Mum!”

Colons and semi-colons

Colons are used when introducing a list:

There were four people on the bus: Jenny, Carla, Juan and Colin.

They are sometimes used before someone speaks:

He said abruptly: “Don’t cut the red wire!”

Semi-colons are used between two clauses when the information in the second is directly related to the first:

We can go to the cafe for the meeting; Monday mornings are pretty quiet there.

Semi-colons can divide items in complicated lists:

Meeting attendees: Peter Jones, Minister for Arts, Racing and Sport; Jane Smith, who’s recently joined the Minister’s staff; and the Secretary for Finance, James Poole.

Single quotes and double quotes

Double quotation marks are used to show when someone is speaking. Without them, meaning can be significantly different:

She turned to me as we reached the road and said I should go back to the house.

She turned to me as we reached the road and said, “I should go back to the house.”

Notice that a comma is used between ‘said’ and the first set of double quotes. A full stop is used before the final double quotes to indicate the person has stopped speaking.

You can use quotation marks to break up someone’s speech:

“There’s no point,” he snapped, “offering me an apology – I won’t accept it.”

Single quotes are used when someone who is speaking quotes someone else:

“I had barely entered the room when she shouted, ‘I know you! You’re John!’ Since my name is Phillip, I couldn’t help but be confused.”

Single quotes are also used to draw attention to a word, or to make it clear that it is the subject of the sentence:

What do we mean when we talk about ‘space’?

When you say ‘nothing’, what do you mean exactly?

Dashes, en dashes and em dashes

Dashes are the smallest of lines. Dashes connect two or more words that are usually spaced out so as to create a new meaning:




En dashes (Alt + 0150) are used to indicate a span of time or a range of numbers:

The 2019–2020 season was cancelled.

Chapters 8–12 are your reading homework.

She bought the May–July issue of the magazine.

Don’t use an en dash if there’s a ‘from’ or ‘between’ before the time/numbers:

I studied maths from 1pm to 2pm.

Between 1980 and 1985 there was a revolution in rap music.

Em dashes (Alt + 0151) mark out part of a sentence for emphasis, or to isolate a clause:

Visit my accountant — his name’s Richard, he’s very good — and see if he can help you.

Punctuation is not as daunting as it seems — much of it can be picked up by reading books, reports and news stories. With practice, and a style manual, you’ll soon have punctuation tamed to do your bidding.



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