The word punctuation comes from a Latin word meaning “inserting pauses in writing.”

A period (.) ends a sentence.

A comma (,) creates a pause in the text. There is more to the use of a comma, but if you keep to this simple definition for now, it will get you a long way.

An exclamation mark (!) shows strong emotion or shouting, but don’t overuse it. Use it only when you really need to!

A question mark (?) turns a sentence into a question.

A colon (:) is used to list out a number of things in a sentence.

Four people were queuing in front of the theatre: William, Alec, Tom, and Sue.

It can also be used to give more information, as long as the part after the colon can act as a sentence on its own:

I’m looking for a copy of this book: one of my friends wants to read it.

You can also use colons to greet someone in a formal business letter:

Dear Mr. Roberts:

A semicolon (;) makes two sentences into one; two separate thoughts mashed into one!

Ellipses(…) comes from a Latin word meaning “to leave out.” and shows that some text has been removed.

“Mary ate all the pancakes” can be changed to “Mary ate… the pancakes.”

Ellipses are also handy to just… create a pause… in the text…as if words are going unspoken.

Ellipses are always three periods.

Parentheses ( )come from a Latin word meaning “putting beside.”  They are used to give a bit more information about something, or to make a remark about something.

Bill came to the meeting on time (this was a first).

Joanna (who had hit her head earlier that evening) did not appear at the party.

Quotation marks (“ ”) are used primarily to show that someone is speaking.

“Hello,” said Gary, “how are you?”

You can also use them to be ironic:

The “cure” caused him to get very ill.

Use quotes (or italics) for titles of books, magazines, new technical words, special or unusual words, and so on:

The book “Mansfield Park” is one of the great novels by Jane Austen.

If a quote is inside a quote, use a single quotation mark:

“He told me ‘your hat is funny’ and I laughed,” said Tom.

Punctuation marks go inside the quotes:

“What’s going on, Mildred?” asked Tom.

“Nothing important,” said Mildred.

A hyphen (-) is different than a dash. A hyphen is short. A dash is longer. Each do different things.

Use a hyphen to create compound words, joining two words to make a new one:



Use a hyphen for numbers that do not show a range of numbers. Use hyphens on things like phone or bank account numbers:


You can use hyphenated word to make things clearer to the reader by using a hyphen to create an adjective:

He created some computer-generated art.

They lived in a well-organized community.

En-dash (–) is a bit longer than a hyphen (it’s called “en” because it is about the same size as the letter “n” in older printing machines).

En-dash means “through.” So you would use it for ranges of things:


pages 12–15

An en-dash is used to replace a comma or parentheses:

He went to the store – the big store downtown – to get what he wanted.

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