Basic English Punctuation
Vivian Cook  Punctuation Web  Punctuation Frequency   Capitals
example sentences taken from Zizek

The usual set of punctuation marks in English

_ space 

. full stop/period  

? ! question and exclamation marks


; semi-colon 

, comma   

’ apostrophe 

- hyphen  

– dash  

‘ ’  “ ” quotation marks 

/ stroke  

( ) brackets 

… ellipsis

The standard ways of showing grammatical structure through English punctuation

A text-sentence is delimited by an initial capital letter and a final full stop, question mark or exclamation mark < . ? ! >.

<I’m an old fashioned continental European!>

A finite clause (i.e. one having a tensed verb) may be separated from its neighbour by a boundary colon, semicolon, dash or comma ( : ; – , ):

<If you have a good theory, forget about the reality.>

A non-finite phrase may be separated from its neighbour by a boundary dash or comma:

<Lately we have been doing quite a bit – intervening in foreign countries and destroying the environment.>

Sometimes in pairs:

<You could say, in a vulgar Freudian way, that I am the unhappy child who escapes into books.>

The comma < , > or stroke < / > separate structurally equivalent items in lists:

<I am rather perceived as some dark, ominous, plotting, political manipulator, a role I enjoy immensely and like very much.>

Particularly in postal addresses:

<Churchill Road, Bicester, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom OX26 4XT>

And to separate initial adjuncts:

<Here, I violently disagree.>

A word is separated from its neighbour by spaces:

<We_know_very_well_some_things,_but _we_don't_really_believe_in_them.>

A word may be joined to its neighbour to get a compound word:

<The re-focus on the perpetrator’s traumatic experience enables us to obliterate the entire ethico-political background of the conflict.>

Proper nouns or adjectives and a small set of words like Monday start with an initial capital letter:

<… apart from left-radical Keynesians like Paul Krugman, with whom I’m sympathetic…>

Some morpheme suffixes are joined to their neighbours by a relational apostrophe:

<Today’s racism is precisely this racism of cultural difference.>

Some omitted letters are replaced with an apostrophe:

< I’m an old Hegelian.>

Other abbreviations have a final full stop:

Street sign Dental surgery


Two meanings of <St.> (more)

In British style, the single quotation mark < ’ ‘>, in American style the double quotation mark < ” “ >, signify direct quotation. Quotation within quotation uses the opposite type of quotation mark for the style, i.e. double marks for British style, single for American.

<’I hate the position of “beautiful soul”, which is: “I remain outside, in a safe place; I don't want to dirty my hands.”‘>

Brackets may also enclose virtually any grammatical unit.

<What is really hard for us (at least in the West) to accept is that we are reduced to the role of a passive observer …>

Halliday (1985) Punctuation categories

boundary markers show grammatical units, for example word spaces:

<Air tragedy city in mourning>



status markers show the function of units, for instance question marks:

   <How could this happen again?>

relation markers show links between units, for example apostrophes:

   <At 95 he's gardening's grand old man.>

Diagram of Grammar and English punctuation

Grammatical unit

Boundary marks

Relation marks

Other marks


 . ! ?


 sentence-initial cap


 , ; :






 / for list alternatives


 _ (space)


 word-initial cap for proper nouns








 ’ . letter omission

 units at any rank

 ‘ ’ “ ”


 , may replace repeated units
( ) may enclose units
,  , (paired) may enclose units

Why punctuation matters

'You don't want to look stupid!' (Punctuation Repair Kit, VanDyck, 1996)

'The problem with poor punctuation is that it makes life difficult for the reader who needs to read what you've written' (Penguin, Trask, 1997)

Punctuation 'is a system that allows us to write, to be read, with clarity' (Cassell, Todd, 1995)

'Punctuation is essential to good writing' (Chambers, Jarvie, 1992)

'Intellectually, stops matter a great deal. If you are getting your commas, semi-colons, and full stops wrong, it means that you are not getting your thoughts right, and your mind is muddled'. (Archbishop William Temple)

No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place. Isaac Babel

One must regard the hyphen as a blemish to be avoided wherever possible. (Winston Churchill)

Punctuation marks: The fig-leaves that hide the private parts of literature. (Pablo Picasso)


Typographic rules for hyphenating
(Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style)

1. At hyphenated line-ends, leave at least two characters behind and take three forward.
2. Avoid leaving the stub-end of a hyphenated word, or any word shorter than four letters, as the last line of a paragraph.
3. Avoid more than three consecutive hyphenated lines.
4. Hyphenate proper names only as a last resort unless they occur with the frequency of common nouns.
5. Hyphenate according to the conventions of the language

10. Abandon any and all rules of hyphenation and pagination that fail to serve the needs of the text.


More on hyphens

Some References

Todd, L. (1995) The Cassell Guide to Punctuation, Cassell

Nunberg, G. (1990) The Linguistics of Punctuation, CSLI

The Philosophy of Punctuation (link)


The Greengrocer's Apostrophe  Frequency of punctuation marks