Home > Literary Arts > Punctuation

Understanding Punctuation in English Grammar

Use these online lessons on punctuation for Grade 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, elementary, middle school, and high school students and teachers to learn and understand sentence punctuation, grammar punctuation and punctuation rules in English grammar.



Question Mark
Exclamation Point
Comma - In a Series
Comma - To Separate Clauses
Comma - To Separate Interjections
Comma - To Set Off Phrases
Comma - To Interrupt Word Order
Comma - With Nonrestrictive Elements
Comma - With Contracted Elements
Commas To Prevent Misreading
Conventional Uses of Commas
Misuse of The Comma
The Comma and Interrupting Thought
Comma - And and Or
The Comma - With Conjunctions
The Semicolon
The Semicolon - With Clauses
The Semicolon - With Word Groupings
The Colon
The Dash
The Hyphen
The Apostrophe
Parentheses and Brackets
Quotation Marks
Quotation Marks In Titles
Quotation Marks and Direct Quotations
Quotation Marks - Double Quotations
Punctuation Within Quotation Marks
Quotation Marks in Dialogue
Italics - In Titles
Italics - For Emphasis

Punctuation is a device used to assist the reader. It takes the place of changes in tone, inflection, and volume, and of pauses, facial expressions, and so on, by which a speaker makes his or her meaning clear.



The principal use of the period is to indicate the end of sentence that is not a question or an exclamation.

The period is often used for terminal purposed when a sentence is not involved, as after numbers in a list:
          1. The President.
          2. The Council.
          3. The Board of Trustees.

The period is used to terminate most abbreviations:
          e.g., i.e., Mr., Dr., Rev., etc.

Three periods are used to indicate the omission of one or more words or even sentences in a quotation:

          "I pledge allegiance...to the republic..."

When the omission occurs after the end of a sentence, the three periods are added after the period that terminates the sentence:

          "Shakespeare was born in 1564....He married Ann Hathaway in 1582."

Question Mark

The question mark is used to terminate a sentence with a direct question.

          Who are you? Why? He did?

When enclosed in parentheses, the question mark indicates uncertainty or doubt:

          He lived from 1635 (?) to 1680.

Exclamation Point

Use the exclamation point to terminate a strong expression of feeling. Do not use it for indications of mild emotion, and do not use it repetitively, or the dramatic impact will be destroyed.

          Nonsense! I don't believe you.

          I'll shoot the first man who moves!

          Get out of this house at once!


The comma is the most frequently used (and abused) aid to reading. Most poor users of commas annoy their readers by inserting illogical commas or too many commas. There is no need to uncertainty if the basic principles governing the use of the comma are clearly understood.

Comma - In a Series

Use the comma to separate words, phrases, or clauses in a series.

          John, Fred, Harry, and Frank

Usually the final element in the series is preceded by and or or to indicate the termination of the series.

          John, Fred, Harry, and Frank

The comma before the terminating conjunction (and or or), although not absolutely essential. is used to prevent confusion because of the not infrequent appearance of and within the members of a series:

          She shopped at Johnson's, Ward and Nelson's, and French's.

          He ate soup, meat and potatoes, and pie.

A single adjectival modifying a noun often defines the noun and does not take a comma: pine tree, drinking glass, red dress. Another adjective preceding such an adjective-noun phrase functions as if it modified the entire phrase and is therefore not separated from the phrase by a comma: tall pine tree, large drinking glass, beautiful red dress.

To call attention to each adjective as individually and separately describing the noun and to add emphasis to a description, use a comma to separate the adjectives?

          a tall, dark, distinguished gentleman

Comma - To Separate Clauses

Use the comma to separate the independent clauses of a compound sentence when they are joined by a coordinating conjunction. The comma is place immediately before the conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet) to indicate that the conjunction introduces a clause.

          The mayor invited the members of the committee to lunch, and most of them accepted her invitation.

          I haven't succeeded in balancing my checkbook, yet I plan to continue writing checks.

When the clauses are very short so that most or all of the sentence can be taken in instantaneously by the eye, the comma is not required.

          He sent for her and she came.

Comma - To Separate Interjections

Occasionally, words or phrases in a sentence are not integrated in the sentence structure. Separate such nonintegrated words or phrases from the remainder of the sentence by commas.

          Oh, I thought so.

          Hello, I'm glad to see you.

          I tried so hard, alas, to do it.

Terms of direct address are normally used as interjections.

          John, get the book.

          You over there, put on your hat.

Use the comma to set off sentence modifiers like however, moreover, furthermore, therefore, nevertheless, and phrases like on the other hand, in addition, to the contrary.

          However, she caught the train.

          He tried, moreover, to attain his goal.

          On the other hand, he wasted his money.

Use the comma to set off absolute phrases. Absolute phrases are not connected to the remainder of the sentence by relating words and are therefore set off by commas.

          The river being cold, we did not go swimming.

          It seemed sensible, the weather being warm, to pack a lunch.

Comma - To Set Off Phrases

Since the first element in an English sentence is normally its subject, any phrase or clause of five words or more preceding the subject is concluded with a comma to indicate that the subject is about to appear.

          During the long winter of 1881, the king suffered a severe illness.

          When I see robins on the lawn, I know that spring is here.

If the phrase is so short that the reader can take in both the phrase and the subject in a single sweep, the comma is not necessary.

          In 1881 the king suffered a severe illness.

Comma - To Interrupt Word Order

Set off by commas any words, phrases, or clauses that interrupt normal word order. Normally, adjectives precede the nouns they modify, and, normally, subjects are followed by verbs or by modifying phrases or clauses:

          The old and respected firm in the city went bankrupt.

If, for purpose of emphasis, the adjectives old and respected follow the noun firm, they are set off by commas;

          The firm, old and respected, went bankrupt.

A single comma should never interrupt the natural flow of a sentence, as from subject to verb or from verb to verb completion. But intruding elements of any kind should be indicated by being preceded and followed by commas.

          The river, it seems likely, will overflow its banks.

          The year of his graduation, 1950, was an eventful one.

          She was a tall and, to put it mildly, thin woman.

Comma - With Nonrestrictive Elements

Any word, phrase, or clause that is not essential to the meaning of a sentence is called nonrestrictive. Set off nonrestrictive elements by commas.

          Some words, like "scurrilous," are difficult to spell.

          His father, Mr Smith, was ill.

          The Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are long poems.

Be careful to distinguish between such nonrestrictive elements and restrictive elements. Restrictive words, phrases, or clauses are necessary to the meaning of a sentence and are never set off by commas.

          Shakespeare's play Hamlet is a masterpiece.

          The people who sat in the balcony paid less for their seats.

          My brother, who sat in the balcony, enjoyed the play. [The location of his seat is not considered essential to the statement being made.]

By insertion or omission of commas, the writer can indicate whether elements are restrictive or not.

          His dog Rover is a collie. [The lack of commas indicates that he has several dogs. One of them is named Rover.]

          His dog, Rover, is a collie. [He owns only one dog. The name is given but it is not essential.]

When the nonrestrictive element occurs at the end of the sentence, the comma preceding it indicates its relative unimportance.

          The president was interviewed by a large group of reporters, who were informally dressed.

Comma - With Contracted Elements

Use the comma to emphasize the contrast between two parts of a sentence.

          He wanted to see a psychiatrist, not a lawyer.

          His diet was wholesome, not appetizing.

          She longed to find happiness, but found misery instead.

Commas To Prevent Misreading

Use the comma to prevent misreading when the sequence of words in a sentence might lead to momentary confusion.

          During the summer, days become longer.

Without the comma, the reader might well read summer days.

          Soon after, the meeting was adjourned.

Without the comma, the reader might read after the meeting, and this fragment would have no subject.

          The lawyer interviewed John and Fred, and seemed very happy about what they had to say.

In this sentence the two and's occur in close proximity. The first joins the nouns John and Fred: the second joins the verbs interviewed and seemed. The comma after Fred clarifies the structure of the sentence.

Conventional Uses of Commas

Certain uses of the comma have become established by convention.

1. Following the salutation of an informal letter: Dear Mildred,

2. Following the complimentary close of a letter: Yours truly,

3. Separating dates of the month from the year: June 19, 1942

4. Separating parts of an address: Mr. John Smith, 138
Elm Street, Syracuse, N.Y. 13082

5. Separating numbered or lettered divisions or
subdivisions: Book III, Chapter 9; or III, 9; or A, d

6. Separating names from distinguishing titles: Frank
Jones, Jr. or Edward French, PH.D.

7. Separating thousands in larger figures: 1,497,341

8. Separating a direct quotation from the indication of the speaker: She said, "Be gone!"

Misuse of The Comma

Do not annoy the reader by inserting commas where they are not required. Commas are intended to help the reader; unnecessary commas only confuse.

The Comma and Interrupting Thought

Do not interrupt the normal flow of thought with a comma.

The fact that the train had broken down halfway between its point of departure and its destination, was sufficient reason for the passengers to malign the railroad. [The subject is a long clause, but it is entirely clear. It opens the sentence as expected, and it is followed immediately by the verb. Inserting a comma after destination merely impedes the flow of thought.]

He drove a hard, sharp, painful, bargain. [The comma after painful separates the adjective painful from the word it modifies.]

Comma - And and Or

Do not separate words or phrases by and or or.

He went to the office, and opened his mail. {And joins the compound verb went and opened. It does not join two clauses.]

The Comma - With Conjunctions

Do not place a comma between a conjunction and the word or words it introduces.

He was tired but, he refused to stop driving.

The lonely woman continued to hope that, her son was still alive.

The Semicolon

The semicolon functions midway between the comma and the period as an indication of a pause. It is stronger than the comma and weaker than the period.

The Semicolon - With Clauses

The principal use of the semicolon is to mark the dividing point in a compound sentence, the clauses of which are not joined by a coordinating conjunction.

          The policeman stood on the corner, he was watching the traffic pattern at the intersection.

          The boss had a good sense of humor; nevertheless, she was a strict supervisor.

The Semicolon - With Word Groupings

A proliferation of commas in a sentence may lead to confusion. The semicolon, as a stronger mark, is therefore useful in punctuating major elements that themselves contain commas.

          He visited several colleges, schools, and institutions; several factories, office buildings, and churches; and a number of public buildings of a miscellaneous nature. [The three major divisions, the first two of which contain commas, are clarified by the use of the semicolon.]

The Colon

The colon is principally used to introduce a list (frequently in conjunction with such words as following or as follows). It should not be used to introduce a short list such as He raised beans, peas, apples, pears, and plums.

          The gentlemen who contributed to the fund were: John Doe, Frank Smith, Eliot Doolittle, and Ezra Jones.

          The principles on which the club was founded are as follows:
          1. The establishment of a revolving fund for education.
          2. The provision of entertainment for the children.
          3. Monthly social meetings for the adults.

Occasionally the colon is used to introduce a single word or phrase to add dramatic significance.

          He had only one thing to live for: death.

The colon can be used to introduce a single word, phrase, or clause when it acts as a substitute for the words as a result.

          The president died: the firm failed.

The colon is used after the salutation of a business letter (Dear Sir: or To Whom It May Concern:) and to divide subdivisions from major divisions as in recording time (12:25) or Biblical references (Genesis 10:3).

The Dash

The dash is used to indicate a sharp or sudden break in the normal or expected flow of sentence structure. (In typing, a dash is represented by two hyphens.)

          He asked me-- what was he thinking? -- to marry him.

          I hoped that he -- . But I'd rather not talk about it.

The dash may be used to separate parenthetical ideas of ideas inserted as an afterthought.

          The New York skyline--especially when viewed for the first time-is a breathtaking sight.

          He ran down the hill with the speed of an express train--or so it seems.

The dash is used in dialogue to describe hesitating or halting speech.

          "I mean--I think--I think I mean," he began hesitantly. "I think I mean I'd make a good husband."

The Hyphen

The hyphen is used to make a compound word out of two or more words intended to be read as a single unit, sometimes to modify a noun.

          The Dartmouth-Brown game

          Mr. John King-Smith

          A high-pressure salesman

          A sugar-coated pill

          A holier-than-thou expression

The hyphen is used to indicate that the remainder of a word is to follow when the word is broken at the end of a line. Words may not be divided arbitrarily; they may be broken only between syllables. (Syllables are the parts of a word that are naturally pronounced as units. When in doubt about correct division into syllables, consult a good dictionary.)

The hyphen is used with compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

The hyphen is used to separate dates of birth and death: John Barton (1181-1214); scores of games: 13-12; another figures when the relationship between them is obvious.

The Apostrophe

Apart from indicating possession, the apostrophe is principally used to indicate letters in a contraction.

          Who's there? She's afraid.

          Peter's plum.

The apostrophe is also used to form plurals of numbers and letters for which there is no acceptable plural.




Parentheses and Brackets

Parentheses are used to enclose material that are so intrusive as to be an annoying interruption of sentence structure.

          It is important (importance being understood to be a relative matter) to obey the law.

          The law was passed (1) to satisfy the governor, (2) to please the people, and (3) to provide greater safety.

          The houses were classified as (a) bungalows, (b) ranch-type houses, (c) split-level houses.

          His novel The Homeward Trail (1917) was a best-seller.

Brackets are used to enclose additions by the editor to any kind of quoted matter.

          "The author [Mark Twain] was known primarily as a humorist."

          "He was born in 1835 [?] in a small southern town."

If parentheses and brackets are to be used in a sentence, the parentheses must appear within the brackets. In this instance, brackets do no signify an editorial comment, but rather act as double parentheses.

          Joan Baez's most famous record ["Mary Hamilton" (1958)] earned a gold record for her.

Quotation Marks

Quotation Marks In Titles

Quotation marks are used to indicate titles of short works, such as articles in magazines, short stories, one-act plays, essays, short poems, and chapter titles.

          "The Raven" [short poem]

          "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" [short story]

          "Bound East for Cardiff [one-act play]

Quotation Marks and Direct Quotations

Quoted material, whether oral or written, is indicated by quotation marks. Only the exact words of the original speaker or writer should be so enclosed. An indirect quotation or a report of the substance of what was said or written should not be enclosed by quotation marks, but should be inserted within the quotation in brackets.

In direct quotations, indications of the speaker (he said, she asked) are separated from the quotation by a comma or marked off by two commas if reference to the speaker is placed within a sentence.

          "Please don't tell my mother," he whined.

          The nurse replied, "That's exactly what I intend to do."

          "Well, at least, " he entreated, "don't tell her everything."

When the indication of the speaker is placed at the end of a quotation that concludes with a question mark or an exclamation mark, the comma is omitted.

          "Don't you know enough to stop?" he asked.

          "Let me go!" she shrieked.

In quotations other than dialogue, the punctuation and capitalization of quoted matter is reproduced exactly as it was originally written. Note the absence of a comma before the quote in both examples.

          The author believes that "Capitalism is here to stay."

          The novel reflected the author's "growing concern with the problem of juvenile delinquency."

If the quotation is longer than one paragraph, no end quotation marks are placed at the conclusion of the first paragraph. All succeeding paragraphs are prefaced by quotation marks, and only the final paragraph is concluded with end quotation marks.

Long quotations (ten lines or more) from writings are frequently not enclosed in quotation marks. They are set off from the original writing by indentations. Smaller typeface is customary for printed matter and single spacing for typewritten material.

Quotation Marks - Double Quotations

Single quotation marks are used to indicate a quotation within a quotation.

          "I've just read Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind,'" she said.

The alternation of double and single quotation marks is continued for the inclusion of quotations within quotations within other quotations. Such complexities should be avoided, of course, but the following is an example of the technique:

          "Are you aware," asked the lawyer, "that the defendant precisely states, 'I did not read "The Bride Said, 'No'" '?"

Be sure that all relevant punctuation stays within the correct set of quotation marks. Note particularly the placement of the question mark as terminal punctuation.

Punctuation Within Quotation Marks

The placing of quotation marks in connection with other punctuation follows the standard procedures instituted by printers for the sake of the physical appearance of the page. Periods and commas are always placed inside end quotation marks.

          "I wanted," he said, "to go home."

Colons and semicolons are always placed outside end quotation marks. Other marks are place where they logically belong--within the quotation if they punctuate the quotation, outside the quotation if they punctuate the sentence of which the quotation is a part.

          He called his friend "old frog"; he didn't mean it as an insult.

          "How are you?" I asked.

          How can I tell that "Whatever is, is right?"

          Beware of "the valley of the shadow of death"!

Quotation Marks in Dialogue

Standard practice in the punctuation of dialogue calls for a new paragraph for each change of speaker. Descriptive or other materials related to the speaker are contained in the same paragraph as the quotation.

          "Why did you go to the festival?" Amanda asked, feeling angry and confused.

A particular advantage of this convention is that when only two speakers are involved, the alternation of paragraphs makes it unnecessary to identify each speaker in turn and allows dialogue to be paced more rapidly and without interruption.

          "What do you want from me?" Jeanette asked angrily. "Don't I do enough around here already?"

          "Like what, for instance?" Hal said. "What do you do?"


          "Go on."

          "Ironing and cooking and cleaning and listening--listening to you whenever you care to sit me down and talk to me!"

          "Al right, all right, I get your drift. Don't get so excited."


Italics is a term used to designate a particular font of printed type in which the letters slant upward to the right as in the word italics. In written or typed material, italics are indicated by underlining.

Italics - In Titles

Use italics to indicate the titles of novels, full-length plays, long book-length poems, full-length motion pictures, the titles of books in general and the names of newspapers. They are also used to indicate names of magazines of periodical publications of any sort. This usage in conjunction with quotation marks helps to distinguish the complete book from the chapter and the collection from the poem and so on.

          Hamlet                              A Tale of Two Cities
          The Atlantic Monthly           The New York Times

EXCEPTIONS: Through convention, the Bible and the books of the Bible are neither italicized nor put in quotation marks.

Italics - For Emphasis

Italics are occasionally used to give emphasis to a particular word or group of words. This usage should be avoided and resorted to only when no other method of stressing the word is available.

          "I didn't mean your husband; I meant you!"

This is an ungrammatical form in Standard American English.


To Use other lessons in our Language Arts go to out Language Arts Index page