rules of English punctuation

The rules of English punctuation are important in written texts and involve the uses of different punctuation marks (or special symbols) to clarify meaning and separate phrases and sentences. Therefore, we need to understand punctuation to better understand English reading and to produce English writing.

What are the rules of English punctuation?

[Last updated on 21/11/2023]

There are twelve key punctuation marks that are used in English writing. Here is an outline of the different symbols with an explanation and examples of how to use them in English texts.

01 Capital

Capital letters A B C

We use a capital letter to begin a sentence, for the first pronoun I, proper nouns (e.g. specific nouns of places, people, nationalities, days and months.

On Saturday, I spoke to our British manager in London.

02 Full stop

Full stop (period American English) .

We use the full stop to end a sentence. They can also be used after abbreviations, where words are shortened

I have a meeting at 3 p.m. to talk about new projects and ideas etc. that we would like to introduce next year.

03 Question mark

Question mark

We use a question mark at the end of a sentence (and not a full stop) to indicate that it is a question.

Did you have any business trips last year?

04 Comma

Comma ,

We use commas in a sentence to break the sentence into separate units. This can make the sentence easier to understand, and is similar to how we make slight pauses in English speaking.

In the summer, I went to Spain, Italy, France and Germany.

05 Apostrophe

Apostrophe '

We use an apostrophe when there is a contraction to join words, or with s to indicate possession.

We’re going to have dinner at my colleague’s house on Saturday.

06 Exclamation mark

Exclamation mark !

We use an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence to express excitement, surprise and strong emotions.

I heard that you’ve been promoted. That’s fantastic!

07 Speech marks

Speech marks (quotation marks American English) " "

We use speech marks to enclose direct speech in writing or to indicate other quoted material.

My colleague asked me “Do you want to meet up for a date on Saturday?” and I still haven’t replied.

08 Semicolon

Semicolon (or semi-colon) ;

A semi-colon is stronger than a comma, and is used to separate two sentences that are closely linked to each other in meaning.

I’m looking forward to my new position at work; it should have a lot of exciting challenges.

09 Colon

Colon :

A colon is used to show that something is going to follow, such as a list, an explanation or expansion, or between numbers expressing time, ratio or scores.

I work at an international company with offices in five countries: England, Germany, Spain, Japan and South Korea. Earlier today, I emailed colleagues in Berlin about the football match at 8:00 p.m. yesterday evening. England scored 3:0 against Germany!

10 Hyphen

Hyphen -

A hyphen is used to join words together, typically in compound words such as adjectives and nouns. There are no spaces between the words and the hyphen.

My brother-in-law recommended that we have an up-to-date website.

11 Brackets

Brackets (parentheses American English) ( )

Brackets are used to give extra information in the sentence. The sentence can also be understood without the text in the brackets.

I applied for this job (after working for one year in Asia) because it is an international company and has opportunities to travel.

12 Dash

Dash –

A dash is used to separate a piece of information from the rest of the sentence, and can be used as an alternative to brackets. It is longer than a hyphen and some prefer spaces between the words and the dash.

I applied for this job – after working for one year in Asia – because it is an international company and has opportunities to travel.

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Ideas to improve English punctuation

Start reading in English
English punctuation exists in English writing. Therefore, the best way to see examples of the rules of English punctuation is to read English texts. Choose a topic that you enjoy, such as the news or sport etc., and you will be exposed to English grammar, vocabulary and punctuation.

Try to do English writing
It’s great to read the rules of English punctuation, but practise is the key to improving your English skills. You can start with simple writing tasks (e.g. emails, postcards) and start putting sentences together. If you are taking an English language course or have a private English teacher, ask for written exercises and they will be able to give feedback and correction. We also have English courses with qualified English trainers in Munich.

Alternatively, you can use your computer or phone and change language settings to English. Then you will get automatically get suggestions, and software programmes like MS Word can help with punctuation as well – but don’t always trust them!

Do you really know the rules of English punctuation?

Here is a punctuation English quiz to start practising!

Read the text and choose the correct punctuation mark for each question.

1. A new colleague started at my company last week. His name's Jonathan, and he(1)s...

Choose one correct answer.

2. ... from London(2) He has also lived ...

Choose one correct answer.

3. ... in four other countries(3) Japan, ...

Choose one correct answer.

4. ... South Korea(4) Malta and Germany.

Choose one correct answer.

5. He seems to be friendly and hopefully hard(5)working, ...

Choose one correct answer.

6. ... but likes to talk a lot(6)

Choose one correct answer.

7. He keeps telling us stories about himself (7)including his life abroad, his family, speaking other languages and more(7), ...

Choose one correct answer.

8. ... and even said (8)I'd love to move back to Japan one day(8).

Choose one correct answer.

9. Eventually, we told him that we needed to spend more time talking about his new job(9) there are several tasks which are quite urgent, so we can't just chat the whole day! ...

Choose one correct answer.

10. Do you have a colleague like this too(10)

Choose one correct answer.