How to Use 14 Basic Punctuation Marks

In English grammar, the rules of punctuation depend on the symbols themselves. The following list covers the most common punctuation marks in the English language. Note that British English and American English have different names for some of these marks. 

1. Period: The period punctuation mark (.) is used at the end of a complete, declarative sentence. (In the UK these are called “full stops.”) Many abbreviations also end with a period. For example: “Dr.” or “Mr.” Use one single space after a period.

2. Comma: Writers use commas (,) to separate different ideas, separate items on a list, and distinguish between different elements in a sentence. For example, the following sentence uses a comma before a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent clauses: “She is an excellent litigator, but she doesn’t yet have the experience to attempt this kind of case.”

Related: Sentence Fragment

3. Question mark: The question mark (?) is used to terminate a sentence in which a question is asked, technically called an interrogative sentence. For example: “Are you going to walk to the concert?”

4. Exclamation Point: An exclamation point (!), called an exclamation mark in the UK, is used to end a sentence with special emphasis, or to denote a forceful outburst. For example: “Don’t touch that!”

5. Semicolon: The semicolon (;) separates two independent clauses within the same sentence. These clauses are related but present separate ideas. You can also use semicolons to separate aspects of complex lists. For example: “We like spicy food; our mother does not.”

6. Colon: A colon (:) is used within a complete sentence to introduce a quotation, an example, or a series. You can also use colons to separate a main title from a subtitle. For example: “There are only two moves to remember: the pop and the roll.” Colons can also separate two independent clauses that share a single sentence. For example: “Dinesh redecorated his bedroom: He moved the bed to the far wall and added some framed portraits.”

Related: Spelling Differences Between British and American English

7. Apostrophe: The apostrophe (’) is used in three ways: to denote ownership in the form of a possessive noun; to form contractions such as “don’t” and “would’ve” and to substitute letters within an abbreviated word. For example: “The shepherd’s beard had grown long during the winter.” They can also be used to denote multiples of lowercase letters, as in: “He still gets his o’s and his u’s mixed up.”

8. Hyphen: A hyphen (-) is used to connect two parts of a compound word and to link together two names that have been combined into a compound name. For example: “He used the ship-to-shore radio.” And: “I’d like to introduce Ms. Willis-Hoffman.”

9. Parentheses: Parentheses (()) are used to contain a clarification or an afterthought within a sentence.

10. Ellipsis: An ellipsis is a series of three periods (…) that represents an omission of words or letters. These may be omitted to shorten a quotation, by removing parts of the text that are irrelevant to the context of the quotation, as in: “As the Bard said, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…’” They can also be used in written dialogue to denote when a character has trailed off without finishing their sentence: “She looked at him and said, ‘I just can’t anymore…’”

Related: Hyphen vs Dash

11. En dash: The English language uses two types of dashes, and the en dash is the shorter one (although it’s a bit longer than a hyphen.) This punctuation mark denotes a period of time, effectively replacing the word “to” as in “they were the undefeated champs from 1976–1982.” The en dash is so named because it is as long as a lowercase letter n (–).

12. Em dash: This longer dash is used for style and structure. You can use an em dash to mark a sudden change in thought or a break in sentence structure. Em dashes can also be used to mark emphasis by linking a new clause to the end of a sentence. For example: “There were several things he wouldn’t eat—he kept a list in his diary—so eating out was always a chore.” The em dash is so named because it is as long as the letter M (—).

13. Quotation mark: Quotation marks (“”) distinguish dialogue within a sentence. They also denote a word-for-word quote or transcription. You can also use single quotation marks (using the same key you’d use for an apostrophe) when inserting a quote within a quote. For example: “I asked the ranger for comment, and she said, ‘We remind the public that all wild animals must be regarded with caution.’”

14. Brackets: Also called square brackets ([ ]), these punctuation marks are used to include additional text to a quotation for context. You often see these markings in journalism. For example: “The author was livid, exclaiming, ‘You took it [the book] out of context because you relied on his [Henderson’s] spin.”