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A Functional Guide to Some Problems of English Punctuation

by Tim Caudery


  1. Introduction
  2. The functions of punctuation
  3. Joining independent clauses
  4. Separating parts of an independent clause
    Adverbials · Insertions · A comment on the rest of the sentence · Explanations and extensions · Subjects and predicates
  5. Joining and breaking words
    Joining words to form a compound · Joining words that modify another word · Breaking words at the ends of lines
  6. Listing
  7. Adding meaning
    Questions · Exclamation · Unfinished items · E-mail attitudinal signs
  8. Showing omissions
    Letters · Words
  9. Showing possession
  10. Marking direct speech
  11. Quoting from texts
  12. Abbreviations, numbers and dates
    Abbreviations · Numbers · Dates
  13. Marks with special meanings
  14. Some useful rules of thumb
  15. Brief bibliography
  16. Exercises
  17. Solutions to exercises


This guide is organised according to the functions of punctuation, the different things that punctuation can be used for. It is not intended as a systematic and complete account of English punctuation, but concentrates on areas of punctuation use that often cause difficulty, especially to people for whom English is a second language.Hopefully, it will be useful for looking up the solution to specific problems.

Note: examples marked * are incorrect English.

Please e-mail any comments or suggestions for improvements to Tim Caudery at

1 Introduction

Most guides to punctuation usage are organised under the different punctuation marks. Thus, you can look under 'commas' and find ten different uses of the comma listed, and so on. This is fine if you want to make a full list of all the different things punctuation can do in English. However, it is not so convenient if you have an idea of what you want to do, but don't know which punctuation mark - if any - should be used.

This guide is organised according to the functions of punctuation, the different things that punctuation can be used for. Hopefully, it will be useful for looking up the solution to specific problems. It is not intended as a systematic and complete account of English punctuation, but concentrates on areas of punctuation use that often cause difficulty.

Both British and American systems of punctuation are described in cases where these differ.

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2 The functions of punctuation

Punctuation marks date back to at least the fifth century BC, when the Greeks began to use marks to show where there were breaks between sentences and parts of sentences. At that time there were only capital letters, and no spaces were made between words - so it's easy to see that reading a text without punctuation must have been quite confusing!

Showing divisions in a text remains the main function of punctuation and of textual features that are often considered part of the punctuation system, such as the use of capital letters. White spaces show the breaks between words. Full stops and capital letters show the breaks between sentences, while commas and other marks show divisions within sentences. Breaks between lines and indentation of new lines show where new paragraphs begin. The main purpose is to prevent confusion, to make the text easier to read.

At one time, there was considerable debate as to whether punctuation in English should be based on the places where one should pause while reading aloud, or on grammar. Of course, grammatical divisions and pauses for breath often fall in the same places, but not always. The debate was won by those who favoured using punctuation to mark grammatical divisions. It's very important to remember this; you can't decide how to punctuate a text just by reading it aloud. You can't punctuate in English without thinking about grammar.

A more modern function of punctuation is to add an extra element of meaning. Thus, a question mark indicates that something is a question, even if there is nothing in the grammatical form of the words to indicate this, e.g.

John likes whisky?

While the basic rules of punctuation are now quite firmly established, there are quite a lot of minor differences in usage, particularly between Britain and the United States, and the system is also subject to changes in fashion. For example, abbreviations such as US (United States) may also be written U.S.. Some people might see the second full stop at the end of the preceding sentence as being unnecessarily 'fussy' (one full stop for the abbreviation, one for the end of the sentence). The important thing is to be consistent in your own writing as far as these options go. If you are writing for publication, the publisher will probably give you some guidelines to follow, and will 'tidy up' anything which is inconsistent with the 'house style'.

The modern trend is towards less use of punctuation marks where possible. However, the phrase 'where possible' is important! Sometimes the rules of punctuation usage state that you must use, for example, a comma in a particular place, and you cannot leave it out on the grounds that 'less punctuation is better'. Sometimes, too, the use of a comma may be optional from a technical point of view, but it can still make it easier for a reader to understand what you want to say.

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3 Joining independent clauses

An independent clause is something which can stand on its own as a complete sentence.

The London Marathon is very popular.
More than 26,000 people ran in it last year.

We do not keep wim-woms in stock
However, we can obtain them within three days.

I pulled.
Mary pushed.

Although independent clauses can stand on their own as complete sentences, this is not always what makes the best text. When two independent clauses are related to each other in terms of meaning, it may be useful to join them.

This can be done in several ways.

You can use and or but . In these cases, it is often helpful to insert a comma as well, though you don't need to do so if the two sentences are very short.

The London Marathon is very popular, and more than 26,000 people ran in it last year.
We do not keep wim-woms in stock, but we can obtain them within three days.
I pulled and Mary pushed.

Notice that even in short sentences, a comma can still be put in to avoid confusion:

I worked, and Mary and Jane watched.

is clearer than

I worked and Mary and Jane watched.

You can also add other conjunctions such as because, as, although, etc. to link two independent clauses together while showing how the meanings of the two are related. However, this means that the clauses are no longer considered independent. Such cases are dealt with under 4a, 'Separating parts of an independent clause: Adverbials', (below).

You can use a semi-colon to show that the two independent clauses are linked in some way, often leaving the reader to work out the relationship, as in the first sentence below:

The London Marathon is very popular; more than 26,000 people ran in it last year.

We do not keep wim-woms in stock; however, we can obtain them within three days.

I worked; Mary and Jane watched.

This makes the semi-colon one of the most useful (and most under-used) punctuation marks in English.

If the second clause can be regarded as an explanation or an extension of the first, you can use a colon:

The London Marathon is very popular: more than 26,000 people ran in it last year.

A dash can often be used in the same way as a colon or semi-colon, especially in less formal writing:

Our sales have increased considerably - we shall have to take on more staff.

Note that neither dashes nor colons are usually followed by a capital letter, since no new sentence is involved. In America, however, there is a growing trend towards the use of a capital after a colon, especially when a new independent clause is involved.

What you must not do is join two independent clauses only with a comma (i.e. without using and or another conjunction as well). Using commas in this way creates a so-called 'run-on' sentence. Run-on sentences sound like 'stream of consciousness' writing, as though you were just putting down ideas one after another without thinking about how they relate to one another:

The London Marathon is very popular, more than 26,000 people participated last year, 90% of them finished the course, the oldest runner was 76 years old, I'm planning to take part next year, ...

Text like this sounds childish, and also quickly becomes very confusing.

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4 Separating parts of an independent clause

a) Adverbials

An adverbial indicates such things as when , where , why or how something is done. It may be a single word, such as yesterday (when) or slowly (how), or it may be much longer - a phrase or even a clause.

When short adverbials are placed at the end or in the middle of a sentence, they should not usually be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Adverbials placed at the beginning of a sentence are often separated by a comma, though whether or not to use one is usually a matter of choice. Note that not all adverbials can be placed at the beginning of a sentence.

Some examples:

I told him the story of my life while we were walking in the garden .
While we were walking in the garden
, I told him the story of my life.
I'll murder him if he gives away the secret .
If he gives away the secret
, I'll murder him.
I often have pizza for lunch on Tuesdays .
On Tuesdays
I often have pizza for lunch.
I reached out and touched her gently .
, I reached out and touched her.

Adverbials defining the time or place at which the action of the sentence takes place are not preceded by a comma if they come last in the sentence:

We'll forward the goods when we have received payment .
You must sign the contract on the dotted line .

Adverbials introduced by conjunctions such as though , although, and since (when it means because ) can always be separated from the rest of the clause by a comma, and often are - even when they come at the end of the sentence:

I'll see her, although I don't want to.
I'm sure she'll agree, since you've asked so nicely.

The separation from the rest of the sentence can be strengthened by the use of a dash, suggesting a long pause in speech:

I'll see her - although I don't want to.

This is a complex area, and it is not practicable to list here all the different punctuation rules for the various types of adverbial. I hope to develop this area more fully at a later date.

b) Insertions

There are various ways in which we might regard some words and phrases as being inserted into a sentence. A rough test for whether something should be regarded as inserted is to see whether the sentence would still make sense in context without the inserted material. Insertions are normally marked off in some way by punctuation marks. Unless the insertion comes at the beginning or end of the sentence, the punctuation marks will be in pairs.

Commas, parentheses or dashes can be used to mark insertions:

We shall leave the house (weather permitting) at three.
Picnics, if taken, should be carried in rucksacks.
The leaders - all four of them - will be wearing yellow jackets.
Jack Jones, the new Sales Manager, will make the presentation.
Coffee will (unfortunately) have to be delayed until four.
He was asked - in his own best interests - to leave the company.

Notice that parentheses and dashes tend to make the insertion look more separate from the rest of the sentence than commas, and the choice of punctuation should be made accordingly. Dashes are more common in informal writing.

Parentheses can also be used to indicate that a whole sentence has been inserted into a paragraph. In such a case, the full stop is enclosed within the parentheses. (This sentence is an example of such an insertion.)

Words or expressions such as however and on the other hand can be thought of as insertions. These are expressions which relate the current sentence to a previous one. They always should be separated from the rest of the sentence by commas:

The horse, however, got away.
However, the horse got away.
The horse got away, however.

Sometimes it can be difficult to decide whether a piece of text should be treated as an insertion or not, especially when it gives information about a noun. First, consider these examples:

The Pope, who was feeling unwell, had to leave early.
The cup with a green handle belongs to the manager.

In the first sentence, the information that the Pope was feeling unwell is regarded as an insertion, because it is not needed in order to make clear who or what we are talking about. There is only one Pope. In the second instance the information 'with a green handle' has clearly been included to tell the listener which cup belongs to the manager; it is not inserted extra information, but is essential to the conversation. Imagine a situation where you were trying to decide which cup to use out of several on the table, and someone said 'The cup belongs to the manager' - in context, this would not make any sense, even though it is a grammatically correct sentence.

Now consider the two versions of this sentence:

The contract, which I signed yesterday, should make us rich.
The contract which I signed yesterday should make us rich.

Which is the correct punctuation - with or without commas? It all depends on the context. If I've already been talking about the new contract, and my listener didn't know that I'd actually signed it, the first sentence would be correct, meaning something like:

That contract - which, by the way, I signed yesterday - should make us rich.

If, on the other hand, this is the first mention in this conversation of this particular contract, and I want to indicate to the person I'm talking to which contract I'm talking about out of the many that I've signed this year, then the second sentence would be correct.

This problem of deciding whether a phrase is essential identification or just inserted extra information occurs especially with clauses beginning with which or who . If you have problems working out whether or not to put in commas, try these tests:

  • Is the thing or person being talked about already clearly identified, either by name or by the situation? If so, the information is an insertion, and needs commas.
  • Could which or who be replaced either by that or by nothing? If so, the information is definitely essential, and no commas should be used.
  • Could you use dashes or parentheses around the phrase? (Try reading it aloud with the sort of long pauses which dashes or parentheses would indicate.) If the sentence seems all right with dashes or parentheses then the information is probably an insertion, and commas (or indeed dashes or parentheses) should be used.

c) A comment on the rest of the sentence

A special use of comma + which is involved when which introduces a comment on the rest of the sentence. Here's an example:

Our sales are well up this year, which is splendid.

The last part of the sentence is a comment, meaning 'and that is splendid'. It doesn't give extra information about the word year , which comes immediately before it, but comments on the whole of the sentence.

d) Explanations and extensions

A colon is used to show that what follows is and explanation or extension of what went before. We have already seen the colon used in this way in joining independent clauses. Other structures can also be introduced in this way:

There was only one way out: the chimney.
She knew how he felt: terrified.

e) Subjects and predicates

The subject of the sentence should not be separated from the rest of the sentence (the predicate) by a punctuation mark, even if it might seem natural to pause in speech after a long subject. Thus, although you would automatically write:

The cat went home

and not:

*The cat, went home

you might feel less certain about

The cat from Manchester belonging to John and Mary Smith went home.

Of course, if the subject contains an insertion surrounded by a pair of commas, one of these may well come immediately before the verb:

The Queen, who had had too much to drink, went home.

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5 Joining and breaking words

a) Joining words to make a compound

English does not form compounds as easily as some Germanic languages, so be very careful about putting two words together as one. In some cases hyphens are used to indicate that two words represent a single concept, sometimes it is normal to write the compound as one word, and sometimes the two words are kept entirely separate. So we get:

school building

The only way to find out whether it is possible to write a particular combination of two words as a single word or as a hyphenated expression is to look it up in the dictionary. Remember, though, that there is a great deal of variation in the way different people write compounds. If in doubt, write two separate words.

b) Joining words that modify another word

Expressions using numbers which indicate the size of something are always hyphenated.

A ten-pound note (= a note worth ten pounds)
A five-ton truck (= a truck weighing five tons)

When the second word is a verb participle (a verb form ending in -ing or - ed ), a hyphen is often used.

A quick-thinking policeman
An under-used symbol

There are other occasions when modifiers can be hyphenated. For a fuller discussion, see The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Strauss at:

c) Breaking words at the ends of lines

Long words can be divided by a hyphen if they come at the end of a line. Basic rules for hyphenation in English are:

  • You can only divide words between syllables. Single syllable words may not be divided.
  • If you have two consonants together at the boundaries of a syllable, make the division between them (e.g. but-ter, stan-dard, fish-cake).
  • If you have only one consonant, try to decide which syllable it belongs to and make the break accordingly (e.g. col-oured not *co-loured)

However, the best ways to decide where to put hyphens are:

  • Make sure you have an English hyphenation programme on your word processor, and let the computer make the decisions
  • Have an English dictionary which shows where words can be hyphenated, such as the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English . If your dictionary does not contain this information, you should consider getting one that does.

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6 Listing

Punctuation is important in making the structure of lists clear.

Commas are used in simple lists of nouns and clauses.

In lists where there are three or more nouns or clauses, the last item in the list is preceded by and or or (or occasionally other words):

James, Judy and John went jogging.
The jogger must be James, Judy or John.
James met Judy and John, went jogging, and then came home.
James went jogging, Judy went swimming, and John stayed at home to cook the breakfast.

In American English it is normal to include a comma before the final link word:

James, Judy, and John went jogging

In British English the final comma is often left out if the list is clear and simple, but may be included if it helps to make the sentence easier to read. If in doubt, put in a comma.

The same structure can be seen with lists of adjectives:

The night was cold, dark and wet.

When the adjectives come before the noun, the same thing happens, though and will probably not be used:

It was a cold, dark, stormy night.

Where there are only two adjectives, one can use either a comma or and :

It was a dark, stormy night.
It was a dark and stormy night.

These rules only apply if the adjectives are of the 'same type'. No commas are used in this example:

I have a thick Swedish woollen coat.

You can see that the adjectives are of different types because you can't put them in a list after the noun. This sentence is incorrect:

*My coat is thick, Swedish and woollen.

Lists of adverbial expressions work in the same way:

I want you to do this exercise slowly, carefully and with great patience.

If a list ends with etc. then precede this with a comma:

You'll need to buy some butter, eggs, milk, etc..

Note that the word and is not needed in such a case, since that concept is included in the Latin phrase et cetera .

Sometimes a list can be introduced by a colon. The colon indicates that what follows is an extension or explanation of what went before:

I need three things: a rope, a gun and a sausage.

Use a colon only when the list is grammatically separate from the rest of the sentence. There should be no colon in sentences such as

I need a rope, a gun and a sausage.

If the items in the list are complex, perhaps with commas included in them, the list may be marked with semi-colons acting as 'strong' commas:

I need three things: a torch with a long-life 9-volt battery; a length of rope, or some very thick string; and a bag which I can easily carry on my back, to put the other things in.

In letters, reports, brochures, and various other documents, it may be easier to use bullets or dashes to mark items in a list.

Before the end of the month we must:

  • draw up a new marketing plan
  • choose a new advertising agency
  • appoint three new sales representatives.

Conventions are not really clear yet about what punctuation to use with bullets and dashes. In the example above I have used nothing other than a full stop; however, I could also punctuate the list as if it was a normal sentence:

Before the end of the month we must:

  • draw up a new marketing plan;
  • choose a new advertising agency; and
  • appoint three new sales representatives.

Personally, I think this is a bit too much. But whatever you decide to do, you must be consistent throughout your document.

When using bullets, it is also possible to put a capital letter after each bullet, even if you are not really starting a new 'sentence':

Remember to bring

  • Sleeping bags
  • Sheets
  • Towels

Remember that no amount of punctuation will make a list successful if it consists of items which are grammatically or conceptually different. Thus the following is not a grammatically correct list:

*He took a hat, a coat, and put them on

because '[he] put them on' is not the same type of list item as 'a hat' and 'a coat'

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7 Adding meaning

Some punctuation marks have indicating meaning as their main function rather than marking grammatical divisions

a) Questions

A question mark is added at the end of a direct question.

How long is this document?

A question mark is always necessary in connection with a direct question, whether or not the grammar of the sentence also indicates a question:

This document is long?

In the sentence above, only the question mark indicates that a question is being asked.

However, with reported questions, no question mark is used:

He asked me whether the document was long.

b) Exclamations

If speech is being written down, an exclamation mark can be used to indicate how something was said:

"Yes!" he shouted cheerfully.

In a written text, an exclamation mark indicates the writer's strong attitude to something: it shows that we think something is surprising, extraordinary, annoying, etc.:

And then he told me to pack my bags!
I can't wait to meet the President!
You can drink as much as you want!
How long this document is!

Exclamation marks are fine in personal letters, advertising, etc., but not normally used in formal reports, formal letters, and the like. They are generally associated with personal feelings, so they occur in documents where it is appropriate for the writer to let their feelings show.

Exclamation marks can be doubled or more for extra effect. An exclamation mark in brackets can indicate a parenthetic comment on what has just been written.

And then he kissed me!!!
He sat down, took off both his shoes(!) and put his feet on my desk.

c) Unfinished items

A row of dots can be left to indicate that the writer leaves it to the reader's imagination to finish what is being said.

There were pickled gherkins, pickled herrings, pickled walnuts, pickled capers, ....
The flowers were beautiful, and as for the fruit ....

Again, this sort of attitudinal punctuation is only appropriate in personal communications, or communications (such as advertisements) which the writer wants to appear personal.

d) E-mail attitudinal signs

Writers of informal e-mail messages sometimes use 'smileys' to indicate how they feel about what they write. A basic smiley is made by typing a colon, a hyphen and a bracket. If you turn your head on one side, these seem to show either a happy or a sad face, depending on the direction of the bracket:

:-) :-(

These can be used to add 'comments' on what is written:

I've got another four hours' work to do tonight :-(

Lists of smileys and their (often strange) meanings can be found on the World Wide Web; search for 'emoticons'.

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8 Showing omissions

a) Letters

The apostrophe is used to indicate one or more missing letters in contractions:

She hasn't called (= she has not called)
It's cold (= it is cold)

Contractions are used in neutral or informal documents. They are all standard forms.

Novelists or playwrights may use apostrophes to indicate missing sounds in speech if they are trying to give an idea of someone's pronunciation:

"I 'aven't seen 'er," lied the gamekeeper.

Short forms of words such as telephone and aeroplane should also be marked with an apostrophe, though this habit is disappearing:

I made a 'phone call.
Get the 'plane to Tokyo.

Sometimes asterisks or dashes are used when a writer does not wish to print a taboo word:

Where the h-- are you going?
I don't give a sh*t what you think.

b) words

If you miss something out from a quotation, this should be shown by a row of three dots. '"This is the best-priced, most profitable product we have ever made," said the Chairman' might be reported as

"This is the best ... product we have ever made," said the Chairman.

(Of course, missing words out in order to change the meaning is totally unethical - you're only supposed to do it to save space, while keeping the basic meaning the same!)

Sometimes missing something out destroys the sense of the text, and a short version may have to be added in square brackets:

'Ms Jones is a wonderful writer, and ... [this book] will be enormously popular.'

Square brackets are used to indicate that the words not those of the original writer. They may also be used to indicate that capitalisation has been changed.

'I found it difficult to use, and ... [t]he manual is badly written'

In this case we can see that originally 'The manual is badly written' was the beginning of a sentence.

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9 Showing possession

Apostrophes are used to indicate that something belongs to something else in some sense (not necessarily in the sense of 'ownership', however).

John's ball has been lost.
Bill's pride is hurt.
Jenny's French is terrible.
Thursday's concert was a disaster.

If the 'possessor' is a word ending in s , then the apostrophe comes after the s :

The ladies' hats have blown away (the hats belonging to the ladies)
Dickens' books are wonderful (the books written by Dickens)

In the case of names ending with s, some people will add an extra s if they would pronounce the possessive form with an extra '-iz':

Strauss's music is still very popular.

Note that possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, mine, hers, etc.) do not have apostrophes in them. The meaning of possession is included in the form of the word, and no additional apostrophe is needed. Many people make mistakes such as:

*This is it's place (Correct version: This is its place)
*It's not mine, it's her's (Correct version: It's not mine, it's hers)

In the second sentence, it's is correct because it means it is .

Sometimes people confuse plural and possessive forms:

*They were all at six's and seven's (Correct version: sixes and sevens)

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10 Marking direct speech

Direct speech is usually shown using double quotation marks (or inverted commas ), though British English may sometimes use single inverted commas.

"Three hamburgers, please," he said, "with ketchup and mustard."
"Give me the gun!" he ordered.

Note that in some print fonts the quotation marks at the beginning of the speech section look like small sixes, and those at the end like small nines.

Notice that there is always a punctuation mark before the inverted commas are closed. If the speaker asked a question or made an exclamation, the appropriate marks are used; otherwise use a comma or full stop, according to whether or not the end of the sentence has been reached. It is the end of the text sentence, not the speaker's sentence, which decides whether a comma or full stop is used. There is also usually a punctuation mark before the inverted commas are opened, though occasionally this may be omitted:

Mark asked, "Where's the coffee?"

Commas are the most usual punctuation mark before a section of speech, though colons may also be used. Note that a capital letter is used in the quoted speech where the speaker begins a new sentence.

In quoting dialogue, begin a new paragraph every time a different person speaks:

The meeting was late starting. The Chairman sat down and said loudly, "Let's get started, or we won't get home before ten!"
"I think we should wait for George," said Cynthia. "After all, we are here to get his report."
"George," replied the Chairman, "is a nuisance."

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11 Quoting

(See also section 8 (b) on words missed out.)

In American English, quoting from written texts is done in almost exactly the same way as speech. Double quotation marks are used, and quotation marks are always preceded by a punctuation mark except where that is used.

The report states that "all accidents are avoidable," and suggests that safety officers should be "better trained."

Note that although 'all accidents are avoidable' might have been the beginning of a sentence, no capital letter is used if this is more natural for the flow of the text. If this was indeed the beginning of a sentence in the original, then it would be more correct to use square brackets to indicate the change in capitalisation, though this might be regarded as unnecessarily fussy except in academic papers:

The report states that "[a]ll accidents are avoidable," and suggests that safety officers should be "better trained."

In British English, single inverted commas are more usually used for quoting. The rule about putting a punctuation mark before the inverted commas are closed is dropped if the punctuation is part of the new text rather than part of the quotation:

The report states that '[a]ll accidents are avoidable', and suggests that safety officers should be 'better trained'. The question it poses is, 'Can the situation be improved?' This, it claims, is 'difficult to answer'.

There is much variation in the ways in which individual publishers punctuate quotes; for example, some treat full sentences that are quoted differently from words and short phrases. The important thing is to be consistent.

Longer quotations (more than four lines) are usually inset, and often printed in smaller type. In such a case, there is no need to use quote marks.

Page references to the original text may be included in brackets:

Cars should be 'fitted with louder horns' (27), and 'learner drivers should be given more lessons' (29).

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12 Abbreviations, numbers and dates

a) Abbreviations

A full stop indicates that a word has been shortened. Thus, 'U.K.' = 'U nited K ingdom '.

The modern trend is towards using fewer full stops with abbreviations. Thus, we can write:

I visited the UK last year.

However, when the abbreviations are entirely in lower case, it is impossible to avoid full stops - without them, the abbreviation might look like normal text. Thus, 'e.g.' (Latin: exempli gratia ) and 'no.' ('number') must always be written with full stops.

Note the full stop in the abbreviation for et cetera : it is punctuated 'etc.', not '*e.t.c.'.

In abbreviations where upper and lower cases are mixed, follow the pattern you have chosen for upper case abbreviations:

Mrs. Dr. Ph.D.

or Mrs Dr PhD

When full stops are used, it may happen that you need to follow them with other punctuation marks:

First I go to the U.S., then I'm off to the U.K..

b) Numbers

Use commas as a thousands separator, and a full stop to show a decimal.

3,000,000 = three million
47.68 = forty-seven point six eight
27,986,587.987453 = twenty-seven million, nine hundred and eighty-six thousand, five hundred and eighty-seven point nine eight seven four five three.

When numbers are written out in words, hyphens are used to join tens and units:

the forty-second psalm

For ordinal numbers, no full stop is used in abbreviations for first, second, third, fourth, etc.:

1st 2nd 3rd 4th

c) Dates

There are many ways of punctuating dates:

July 4th, 1998
July 4th 1998
4th July, 1998
4th July 1998
Tuesday July 4th, 1998
Tuesday July 4th 1998
Tuesday, July 4th, 1998


Be consistent!

If you do not use the abbreviations 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. then you should always use a comma if the date format places the day of the month and the year next to each other:

July 4, 1998

If the date is written with figures, you can use full stops, hyphens or slashes to separate the figures:


In referring to years, an apostrophe may be used to indicate missing words or numbers:

In the 'nineties
in '68

However, this is often omitted.

To write 'the nineteen nineties' in figures:

the 1990s
or the 1990's

(the first is more modern, and more logical).

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13 Marks with special meanings


The slash is used to indicate alternatives:

Place the paper/card in the tray
Offer tea/coffee/chocolate

Where the alternatives are phrases rather than words, use a space on either side of the slash:

At the end of the day shift / beginning of the night shift, put ....


This sign means 'at'. It is used in bills:

5 grommets @ $3.98 = $19.90


This sign means 'number' in American English.

We have received your invoice #1346.

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14 Some useful rules of thumb

These are hints that will save you from making some frequent Danish errors of punctuation.

  1. Don't separate independent clauses with commas only (a comma + conjunction is OK).
  2. Never put a comma before that .
  3. Don't separate subjects from predicates with commas.
  4. Don't use apostrophes in possessive pronouns such as its and hers . Remember that it's means 'it is'.
  5. Separate inserted information from the rest of the sentence by commas, parentheses or dashes.
  6. Don't make combined words by putting two words together without a space between them. Use a dictionary to find out whether a compound expression needs a hyphen.
  7. Don't use a combination of comma + dash in English.
  8. Don't use foreign quotation or speech marks in English, such as «» or „" .
  9. Don't run foreign language hyphenation programmes when working on the computer. If in doubt, use a dictionary to find out where to divide words at the ends of lines.
  10. Where punctuation is optional, be consistent in the way you use it.

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15 Brief Bibliography

For an extensive article on the history of punctuation, see Encyclopaedia Britannica .

A good brief linguistic description of the punctuation signs in English can be found in David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (Second Edition), Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 207.

Many guides to grammar and English usage contain sections on punctuation. A good basic description of British English usage can be found in Michael Swan, Practical English Usage (New Edition), Oxford University Press, 1995.

There are also more detailed guides available, such as Loreto Todd, The Cassell Guide to Punctuation , Cassell, 1997.

For academic writing (American English), a standard reference work is the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers , The Modern Language Association of America, 1988.

Punctuation guides available on the Internet include Mary McCaskill, Grammar, Punctuation, and Capitalization , Chapter 3, at:

and Jane Strauss, The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation , punctuation section, at:

Both are American. Personally, I prefer the style of Strauss's guide, which also includes links to other Internet resources.

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16 Exercises

1. How could you join these sentences? Use punctuation and/or conjunctions or other linking expressions. Try to think of more than one possible solution in each case.

a) The office Christmas party was pretty boring last year.
This year we shall have more to drink.

b) The short tour takes forty minutes.
The long tour takes two and a half hours.

c) I recognised the person in the next car.
It was my uncle.

2 Insert commas where necessary/useful in these sentences.

a) John who had been thinking for some time finally went over to Mary.

b) The man who I saw you with last night was a stranger to me.

c) Jack Jones the Finance Manager is planning a trip to Brazil next year.

d) A whale is not a fish which is surprising.

e) He owns a car which is very strange.

f) I can't take you with me even though I would like to.

g) At half-past three she rang the bell.

h) After giving a great deal of thought to the matter and making a number of telephone calls to trusted friends he decided not to buy shares in Leaky Shipping Company .

3 Punctuate these lists:

a) I've spoken to Peggy Sue and Nancy.

b) I've spoken to Derby and Joan Fred and Freda and Paul and Sandra.

c) Please supply the following three hundred metres of grade 5 nylon fishing line a selection of hooks some suitable for sea fishing a pair of thigh length wading boots size 9 and 12 cans of Newcastle Amber Ale.

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17 Answers to the exercises

1 (Other answers are possible)

a) The office Christmas party was pretty boring last year, but this year we shall have more to drink.
The office Christmas party was pretty boring last year; this year, we shall have more to drink.

b) The short tour takes forty minutes, while the long one takes two and a half hours.
The short tour takes forty minutes; the long one, two and a half hours.

c) I recognised the person in the next car: it was my uncle.


a) John, who had been thinking for some time, finally went over to Mary.
(The inserted element does not define which John we are talking about.)

b) The man who I saw you with last night was a stranger to me.
(No commas possible.)

c) Jack Jones, the Finance Manager, is planning a trip to Brazil next year.

d) A whale is not a fish, which is surprising.
(Comment on the rest of the sentence.)

e) He owns a car which is very strange.
He owns a car, which is very strange.
(Difference in meaning. Without commas it is the car which is strange; with a comma, it is the fact of owning a car.)

f) I can't take you with me, even though I would like to.
(The comma separates an adverbial from the rest of the sentence. A pause would definitely be made here in speech, and the comma is more or less essential in writing.)

g) At half-past three she rang the bell.
(It would be possible to insert a comma after 'half past three', thus separating the adverbial from the rest of the sentence, but it is not necessary, and is probably best omitted.)

h) After giving a great deal of thought to the matter and making a number of telephone calls to trusted friends, he decided not to buy shares in Leaky Shipping Company.
(The very long adverbial needs to be separated from the rest of the sentence for the sake of clarity. A further comma could be inserted after 'matter', but the use of and is sufficient in joining the two clauses in the adverbial.)


a) I've spoken to Peggy, Sue and Nancy. (British English)
I've spoken to Peggy, Sue, and Nancy . (American English)

b) I've spoken to Derby and Joan, Fred and Freda, and Paul and Sandra.
(The use of the word and in different ways would make this list very confusing if there was no comma after 'Freda'.)

c) Please supply the following: three hundred metres of grade 5 nylon fishing line; a selection of hooks, some suitable for sea fishing; a pair of thigh length wading boots, size 9; and 12 cans of Newcastle Amber Ale.

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