Punctuation marks in English are one of the most overlooked parts of learning English. This is especially true if you are preparing for an English test. Knowing your punctuation marks and how to use them can make a big difference in your overall test score.
In this list, we are going to go over each punctuation mark that we use in English. Each mark will be sorted into one of three categories: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced.
The Beginner category will have punctuation marks that are critical to all English learners. You cannot avoid understanding and mastering these marks.
The Intermediate category is going to have all of the punctuation marks that you will commonly see in novels and articles. Most English speakers will need to have a decent grasp of these punctuation marks, especially if they plan on taking an English exam like the IELTS.
Finally, the Advanced category is for punctuation marks that are used in academic English writing or are not commonly used at all. They might be important for some people to know, but for most people, they will not be critical.
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Punctuation Marks for Beginner Students
These are just the basics. Make sure you know every one of these marks perfectly.
When to Use a Period
The period is the most basic punctuation anyone will learn in English. Its job is to tell you when a sentence is finished. In England and other Commonwealth countries, a period can be referred to as a full stop.
There are two other punctuation marks that we use at the end of sentences, but the period is the default punctuation to end a sentence with. If you aren’t sure, then the period is usually the right choice.
Examples of When to Use a Period
She ran to the end of the street.
I wish I had another chance.
When to Use an Exclamation Mark
When you are ending a sentence with a lot of energy and emotion, whether it is surprise, anger, or something else, you use an exclamation mark.
We often see exclamation marks used in dialogue to express someone with a raised voice. It is also commonly used when a command is being given.
Examples of When To Use an Exclamation Mark
“I hate him!” he yelled.
“Come home!” mom told me.
When to Use a Question Mark
A question mark is the third kind of punctuation mark that you would use to end a sentence. We use question marks to indicate that a sentence is a question. If you aren’t sure if it is a question, then look for key question words like who, what, where, when, why, and how.
Examples of When to Use a Question Mark
Where is John?
How are you today?
When to Use a Comma
Commas are possibly the trickiest punctuation mark for people to get right. Even native English speakers often run into problems with these tricky marks.
Punctuation marks are used for:
It is January 3, 2020.
Before Conjunctions (but, and, yet, etc.)
He liked her, but he didn’t like to admit it.
In Lists (of three or more elements)
He has a computer with speakers, a keyboard, and a monitor.
After an Opening Phrase
In New York, you can find any kind of food.
With a Question Tag
They are the best, right?
Addressing a Person
Tim, why didn’t you do your homework?
With Extra Information in a Sentence
He went to the diner and ordered a pot pie, his favorite, about twice a week.
“I want to go,” he said.
These are just the basic uses of the comma. If you want a more in-depth look into how to use this punctuation, take a look at this post over on Grammarly.
One of the biggest issues that people have with commas is comma splices. If you are looking to do high-level writing you should explore this topic further.
Finally, if you want to be an expert with commas, you should understand what an Oxford Comma is and whether you should use it.
Both comma splices and Oxford commas are more advanced topics. Beginners do not need to worry about them at all.
When to Use Quotation Marks
Quotation marks are used for two purposes. The first is to indicate dialogue or thought. The second reason is to indicate the title of a short story or other short work.
Examples of When to Use Quotation Marks
“You should go to bed,” she said.
We read “The Tell-Tale Heart” in English class today.
In American English, all punctuation related to a quote goes inside the quotation marks. In British English, it goes on the outside. In American English, double quotation marks are used in most cases.
If you would like to read more about the specifics of quotation marks, you can take a look here.
When to Use an Apostrophe
Apostrophes are used for two general reasons: to show ownership and to indicate that a part of a word has been removed.
Examples of When to Use an Apostrophe
This is Harry’s boat. (possession)
She is Sarah’s mom. (possession)
She’s the best. (missing letters)
We’ve found a new game. (missing letters)
Punctuation Marks for Intermediate Students
If you are ready to really get a good grasp of English, then you need to make sure you can handle these punctuation marks.
When to Use a Semicolon
Semicolons are used to connect two independent clauses. When you have two clauses that each could be their owns sentence, but they are directly connected, you can use a semicolon to connect them.
People often believe that they can connect two sentences with a comma. When people do this, they create a comma splice.
In some cases, you can also use semicolons in lists like a comma. We use semicolons in lists when the list would be confusing with just commas.
Examples of When to Use a Semicolon
The ocean is filled with many beautiful animals; everyone should have the chance to explore it.
I was busy cleaning the house while she slept; I wish she would help.
During the holidays, I went to New York, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Los Angeles, California.
When to Use a Colon
Colons are primarily used to announce a list. However, we can also use colons to introduce a dependent clause.
Examples of When to Use Colons
I have three best friends: Samantha, John, and Sam. (list)
There is only one sure way to succeed: hard work. (dependent clause)
When to Use a Hyphen
Hyphens are used to connect two words. This can be used to connect an adjective with a noun, to connect numbers, or to add a prefix.
These are the most common uses, but a hyphen is a very versatile piece of punctuation. If you want to see a full list of hyphen uses, you can check out this article by Purdue.
Remember, more so than any other punctuation mark, hyphens are about an author’s choice than real rules. So make sure to notice when they are used and try to determine why they were used.
Examples of When to Use Hyphens
When to Use Ellipsis
An ellipsis is used to show a pause in speech. In formal writing, an ellipsis is used to show that a portion of a quote has been removed for brevity.
Examples of When to Use Ellipsis
“I really think that you should…” he trailed off.
“Should what? I asked.
“In Smith’s research …he studied the effects of Medicine X on monkeys.”
(Original Quote: In Smith’s research at the bio-medical laboratories of Oxford University, he studied the effects of Medicine X on monkeys.”)
Punctuation Marks for Advanced Students
When you have learned everything else and want to get a fully fluent grasp of the language, then you might want to explore these more advanced punctuation marks in English.
When to Use Parentheses
Parentheses are used to insert information into a sentence that isn’t necessary for the sentence to be complete. As well, in formal writing, parentheses are used for citation purposes.
In British English, parentheses are called round brackets. This can be confusing in some instances, so be careful.
Examples of When to Use Parentheses
I agreed to do the job (even if I didn’t want to). (extra information)
Tolkien believed that wizards were never late (Tolkien 16). (citation)
When to Use a Brackets
Brackets are used by an author to add information to a quote to clarify the meaning for the reader.
Brackets in British English can be called square brackets.
Examples of When to Use Brackets
Original Quote: “He hit me and ran.”
Changed Quote: “[The robber] hit me and ran.”
By adding [the robber], an author can add context that is not in the original quote because that knowledge may have been obvious to the speaker.
When to Use a Slash
A backslash (/) is used in coding and URLs. A forward slash is used in literature to show that there is a line break. This is important when quoting poetry.
Examples of When to Use a Slash
My favorite lines of poetry are from Dr. Seuss: “One Fish/Two fish/Red fish/Blue fish.”
When to Use a Dash
A dash is used in the same way as a comma. It is used to draw attention to whatever follows the dash. Choosing between a comma and a dash is entirely up to an author’s discretion.
Dashes can also be used to replace other punctuation marks when, for whatever reason, they aren’t going to work well in that particular sentence.
Examples of When to Use a Dash
Finally, she looked in the closet—he wasn’t there.
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