Punctuation

The general rule is to use as little punctuation as necessary while retaining the meaning of the sentence

Apostrophe

  • to indicate possession
    • use s after singular nouns, plural nouns which do not end in s and indefinite pronouns
      Frank’s book
      anybody’s guess
      The children’s play area is next to the men’s toilet.
    • use just after plural nouns ending in s
      Strong tea is sometimes called builders’ tea.
    • if a name already ends in s or z and would be difficult to pronounce if ’s is added to the end, consider rearranging the sentence to avoid the difficulty
      Jesus’s methods were unpopular with the ruling classes / the methods of Jesus were…
    • in compound nouns and where multiple nouns are linked to make one concept, use the apostrophe at the end of the final part (and match it to that noun)
      the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hat
      my mother-in-law’s dog
      his step-brothers’ cars
      Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun
    • do not use an apostrophe in ‘its’ with the meaning ‘belonging to it’ (this is analogous with his/hers/theirs) The cat has been out in the rain and its paws are muddy.
      The cat has been out in the rain and it’s tail is wet.
    • some place names have an apostrophe and some don’t – this can’t be predicted and must be checked
      All Souls College
      Earls Court
      St Peter’s College
      Land’s End
      University of St Andrews
    • some street names have an apostrophe (usually linked to saints’ names from nearby churches); these are also idiosyncratic
      There is a famous pub on St Giles’.
      St Giles’s splits into Woodstock and Banbury Roads.
      Christ Church is on St Aldate’s.
      St Michael’s Street is a through road for bicycles.
    • use apostrophes with noun phrases denoting periods of time (use an apostophe if you can replace the apostrophe with 'of')
      He took a week’s holiday.
      You must give three months’ notice.
    • but do not use an apostrophe in adjectival phrases
      She was eight months pregnant when she went into labour.
  • to indicate that letters have been omitted (contractions)
    • use an apostrophe in the position the omitted letters would have occupied, not where the space was between the original words
      I don’t like cheese [=do not]
      I do’nt like cheese [≠do not]
      He wouldn’t do that.
    • do not use an apostrophe before contractions accepted as words in their own right
      He’s on the phone.
      He had swine flu.
      There’s no vaccine for all types of 'flu.
    • do not use an apostrophe to make a plural, even with a word/phrase that is not usually written in the plural or which appears clunky. All of the following examples take an s as normal in English to make their plurals
      Three video’s for a tenner.
      I trust all the MP’s.
      Clothes were colourful in the 1970’s.
      CD’s will soon be obsolete.
      This is a list of do's and don't's.
    • to clarify something which will look odd if an s is added, consider italicising it or placing it in single quotation marks
      subtract all the xs from the ys
      dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s

Brackets

  • round brackets (parentheses, like these)
    • use in place of a pair of dashes or commas around a non-defining phrase
      The library (which was built in the seventeenth century) needs to be repaired.
      It was (as far as I could tell) the only example of its kind.
    • use to add extra information, such as a translation, dates, an explanation or a definition Magdalen College (founded in 1458) has a herd of deer.
      The tactic of Blitzkrieg (which means ‘lightning war’ in German) was used in the invasion of Poland in 1939.
      Preheat the oven to 350⁰F (180⁰C).
  • square brackets [like these]
    • use to enclose comments, corrections, references or translations made by a subsequent author or editor
      An article referring to the restrictions placed by some airlines on the appearance of female cabin crew stated that even footwear was proscribed [sic].
      I have been responsible in the real sense, that I have had the blame for everything that has gone wrong. [Laughter and cheers.]
      This was quoted by Brown [1940, Chicago].
  • angle brackets <like these> and curly brackets {or braces, like these}
    • these are used for technical purposes – if you don’t know how to use them, don’t use them
  • other punctuation and brackets
    • include full stops/exclamation marks/question marks/quotation marks inside a bracket only if the complete sentence/quote is in brackets; otherwise, punctuate outside the bracket
      The last bus today is at 4.45 (which is earlier than usual).
      The last bus today is at 4.45. (That’s earlier than usual.)

Bullet points

  • don’t punctuate the end of bullet points which are a list of items
    2012 concert performers:
    • Slade
    • The Smiths
    • Metallica
    • The Spice Girls
  • if the bullet points form a complete sentence with preceding text, add a full stop to the end of the last point
    We are holding a concert in 2012, at which the following acts will perform:
    • Slade
    • The Smiths
    • Metallica
    • The Spice Girls.
  • if the text inside the bullet point is a complete sentence in its own right, add a semicolon to the end of each point, ‘or’ or ‘and’ (depending on the sense of your sentence) to the end of the penultimate point, and a full stop to the end of the last one The following will be considered good reasons for missing the final meeting of the year:
    • there was a postal strike. This only applies if the postal strike took place before the date and the meeting and if you have not signed up for email alerts;
    • you are absent as a result of illness;
    • you are unable to attend because of a problem with public transport (proof of this will be required);
    • there is something more interesting happening elsewhere which you would rather attend; or
    • you have obtained a ticket to see the Spice Girls in concert.

Colon and semicolon

  • use a colon to introduce a subclause which follows logically from the text before it, is not a new concept and depends logically on the preceding main clause
    When I was young, I went on two holidays: to the Lake District and to Cornwall.
    A new drink was introduced to Britain: tea.
  • do not use a colon if the two parts of the sentence are not logically connected
    I used to be thin: I must lose weight.
    I would like to be thin: I must lose weight.
    We were in trouble this time: we’d never been in trouble before.
    We were in trouble this time: the lid had come right off.
    There are two parts to this sentence: the first part, which precedes the colon, and the second part, which doesn’t.
  • use a semicolon to link two related parts of a sentence, neither of which depends logically on the other and each of which could stand alone as a grammatically complete sentence
    The best job is the one you enjoy; the worst job is the one you hate.
    It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
  • use semicolons in place of commas in a complicated list or sentence if it will improve clarity, particularly if there are already commas inside list items
    We plan to review the quality of the research of the department, including its participation in interdepartmental, interdivisional and interdisciplinary activities; its research profile and strategy; and future challenges and opportunities.
    I visited the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Pencil Museum, Keswick.

Comma

  • use a pair of commas to surround a non-defining clause (which adds descriptive information but which can be removed without losing the meaning of the sentence) – only ‘which’ or ‘who’ can be used in this type of clause
    The library, which was built in the seventeenth century, needs to be repaired.
    The man, who climbed the tower without a safety harness, died of old age.
  • do not use commas to surround a defining clause (which cannot be removed without losing the meaning of the sentence) – either 'that' or 'which' can be used in this type of clause
    The library which was built in the seventeenth century needs repairs [but the library which was built in the eighteenth century does not].
    The man that climbed the tower without a safety harness died of old age [but the other man died in a different way].
    He asked his friend Sam to be his second [not any of his other friends]
  • use commas to surround a non-defining word or phrase (which adds information but could be omitted without changing the sense of the sentence), and use a single comma if the non-defining word/phrase is at the start of the sentence
    Shakespeare, the prolific playwright, might not have existed.
    A prolific playwright, Shakespeare might not have existed.
    He asked Sam, his friend, to be his second [not the Sam who is his barber].
    The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is an alumnus of Brasenose.
  • do not use a comma where a non-defining clause is used at the start of a sentence
    The prolific playwright Shakespeare might not have existed.
    The prolific playwright, Shakespeare might not have existed.
    His friend Sam was his second.
    His friend, Sam was his second.
  • do not use a comma to join two main clauses, or those linked by adverbs or adverbial phrases such as 'nevertheless', 'therefore' etc. Either use a semicolon or add a coordinating conjunction (eg and, but, so)
    Shakespeare was popular, and his plays were all profitable.
    Shakespeare was popular; his plays were all profitable.
    Shakespeare was popular, his plays were all profitable.
  • use a comma after an introductory adverb, adverbial phrase or subordinate clause; or use a pair of commas surrounding it if it is in the middle of a sentence
    However, it was too late for that.
    It was, however, too late for that.
    With his possessions in a bundle, Dick Whittington walked to London.
    Dick Whittington, with his possessions in a bundle, walked to London.
  • do not use a comma after a time-based adverbial phrase
    After playing tennis all day she was tired.
    Whenever she went to the cinema she ate popcorn.
    In 2010 the most popular game among children was hopscotch.
  • use a comma between multiple qualitative adjectives (those which can be used in the comparative/superlative or modified with ‘very’, ‘quite’ etc)
    He was a big, fat, sweaty man with soft, wet hands.
  • do not use a comma between multiple classifying adjectives: absolutes which either are or are not, such as 'unique', 'English', 'black' etc (although note that stylistically these can be modified)
    It was an edible German mushroom.
    The eighteenth-century sandstone tower is lit up at night.
  • do not use a comma between classifying and qualitative adjectives
    It was a large German mushroom with hard black edges.
    It was a large, squishy German mushroom with hard, frilly black edges.
  • use a comma between items in a list
    I ate fish, bread, ice cream and spaghetti.
    I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
  • note that there is generally no comma between the penultimate item and ‘and’/‘or’, unless required to prevent ambiguity – this is sometimes referred to as the ‘Oxford comma’.
    He took French, Spanish, and Maths A-levels.
    I ate fish and chips, bread and jam, and ice cream.
    We studied George III, William and Mary, and Henry XIII.
    She left her money to her parents, Mother Theresa and the pope.

Dashes and hyphens (—, –, -)

  • m-dash (—)
    • do not use; use an n-dash instead
  • n-dash (–)
    • use in a pair in place of round brackets or commas, surrounded by spaces It was – as far as I could tell – the only example of its kind.
      The library – which was built in the seventeenth century – needs to be repaired.
    • use singly to link two parts of a sentence, in place of a colon
      The bus was late today – we nearly missed the lecture.
    • use to link concepts or ranges of numbers, with no spaces either side
      German–Polish non-aggression pact
      The salary is £25,000–£30,000.
      Radio 1 is aimed at the 18–25 age bracket.
    • use between names of joint authors/creators/performers etc to distinguish from hyphenated names of a single person
      Lennon–McCartney compositions
      Superman–Batman crossover comics
  • hyphen
    • when to use a hyphen
      • in an adjectival phrase before a noun
        the up-to-date list
        the value of a first-class degree is indisputable
        a hot-air balloon
        'Rethinking provincialism in mid-nineteenth-century narrative fiction: Villette from our village’
      • in an adjectival phrase including a verb participle
        the jumper was tight-fitting
      • with prefixes only if required to avoid confusion/mispronunciation, such as where prefixes themselves or letters are repeated
        predynastic Egypt
        Gifts of pre-eminent objects and works of art to the nation
        The animals are re-released into the wild when recovered.
        A protein precursor can also be called a pro-protein.
        Procapitalists and anticapitalists clashed in the streets.
        The email address for the webmaster can be found on the website.
      • before a proper name, number or date
        anti-Thatcherism
        pre-2000 politics
      • in numbers which are spelt out
        Twenty-seven is the most popular ‘random’ number.
        The Thirty-Nine Steps
      • in compass points
        They’re heading south-east.
        nor’-nor’-east
    • when not to use a hyphen
      • in noun phrases
        Labour Party conference
        black-box recorder
      • to make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words
        Websites are made up of webpages
        Send me an email when you’re ready to proceed.
        Send me an e-mail.
      • in an adjectival phrase following a noun
        The list was up to date.
        His marks just scraped into the first class.
        She wasn’t top-drawer.
      • in an adjectival phrase before a noun where the first element is an adverb ending in -ly (but any other adverbs do take a hyphen)
        She had a finely tuned ear for off-key music.
        XML documents must be well-formed texts.
        She was a highly-respected tutor.
        She was a well-respected tutor.

Ellipsis (…)

  • use an ellipsis to show that some text is missing, usually from a quotation – do not surround it with spaces
    …we shall fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender…
    It is a truth universally acknowledged…
  • there is no need to add square brackets around an ellipsis
    […]we shall fight on the beaches[…]
  • use an ellipsis to indicate a pause for comic or other effect – follow the ellipsis with a space in this case, as it stands in place of a comma
    You don’t have to be mad to work here… but it helps!
  • use an ellipsis followed by a space to indicate a trailing off in speech or thought
    We could do that… or maybe…

Full stop, exclamation mark and question mark

  • use one – but only one – of these at the end of every sentence
    What time did you leave last night?
    We went home at 5 o’clock.
    Go home now!
  • do not use a full stop in titles, even if they make a sentence, but if a title ends with an exclamation mark or question mark, include it
    All’s Well that Ends Well is my favourite play.
    ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ was a hit for the Shirelles.
    ‘Help!’ was covered by Bananarama in 1989.
  • do not use a full stop if it will be followed, or preceded, by an ellipsis
    Behind him stood a figure. …It was ghostly grey.
  • if required, use a question mark after an ellipsis as a separate item of punctuation
    Are you…?
    Did he say that…?
  • use a full stop, not a question mark, at the end of a reported question – only use a question mark for a direct question (whether in quotation marks or not)
    He asked if I wanted to go home that morning.
    ‘Do you want to go home this morning?’ he asked.
    He asked if I wanted to go home?
  • use a full stop, not an exclamation mark, at the end of a reported imperative
    Wait for me!
    He asked me to wait for him.
    He asked me to wait for him!

Quotation marks

  • use single quotation marks for direct speech or a quote, and double quotation marks for direct speech or a quote within that
    ‘I have never been to Norway,’ he said, ‘but I have heard it described as “the Wales of the North”.’
  • use no quotation marks if the quote is displayed (ie not in line with the rest of the text)
    as I noted then,
    Those of us who toil in the Groves of
    Academe know full well that our
    research helps inform our teaching…
  • use single quotation marks and roman (not italic) type for titles that are not whole publications: eg short poems, short stories, songs, chapters in books, articles in periodicals
    I, Robot contains nine short stories, of which ‘Little Lost Robot’ is my favourite.
    The number-one single in the hit parade this week is ‘Read All About It’ by Professor Green.
  • include punctuation which belongs to the quote inside the quotation marks, and a closing full stop/question mark/exclamation mark if the quote is a complete sentence
  • place any punctuation which does not belong to the quote outside the quotation marks (except closing punctuation as above)
    ‘Out,’ said Macbeth, ‘out, brief candle!’
    ‘Out,’ said Lady Macbeth, ‘damn'd spot!’
    'You're engaged to Florence?' I yipped, looking at him with a wild surmise.
    ‘Tomorrow!’ she said, ‘Tomorrow! I love you, tomorrow!’
    ‘The kitchen,’ he said 'is the heart of the home'.
    'The kitchen', he said, 'is the heart of the home.'