Rules of Punctuation

Rules of Punctuation :

The common marks of punctuation are the period, the interrogation point, the exclamation point, the comma, the semicolon, the colon, the dash, marks of parenthesis, and quotation marks. The hyphen and the apostrophe may be conveniently treated along with marks of punctuation.


1. The period, the interrogation point, and the exclamation point are used at the end of sentences. Every complete sentence must be followed by one of these three marks.

The end of a declarative or an imperative sentence is marked by a period. But a declarative or an imperative sentence that is likewise exclamatory may be followed by an exclamation point instead of a period.

The end of a direct question is marked by an interrogation point.

An exclamatory sentence in the form of an indirect question is followed by an exclamation point; as,—“How absolute the knave is!"

2. A period is used after an abbreviation.

3. An exclamation point is used after an exclamatory word or phrase.

Note. This rule is not absolute. Most interjections take the exclamation point. With other words and with phrases, usage differs; if strong feeling is expressed, the exclamation point is commonly used, but too many such marks deface the page.


The comma is used—

1. After a noun (or a phrase) of direct address (a vocative nominative). Thus,—

  • John, tell me the truth.
  • Little boy, what is your name?

Note. If the noun is exclamatory, an exclamation point may be used instead of a comma.

2. Before a direct quotation in a sentence. Thus,—

The cry ran through the ranks, “Are we never to move forward?"

Note. When the quotation is long or formal, a colon, or a colon and a dash, may be used instead of a comma, especially with the words as follows.

3. After a direct quotation when this is the subject or the object of a following verb. Thus,—

“They are coming; the attack will be made on the center," said Lord Fitzroy Somerset.

“I see it," was the cool reply of the duke.

Note. If the quotation ends with an interrogation point or an exclamation point, no comma is used.

4. To separate words, or groups of words, arranged in a coördinate series, when these are not connected by and, or, or nor.

If the conjunction is used to connect the last two members of the series but omitted with the others, the comma may be used before the conjunction.

  • I found two saws, an axe, and a hammer.
  • They were so shy, so subtle, and so swift of foot, that it was difficult to come at them.
  • It would make the reader pity me to tell what odd, misshapen, ugly things I made.
  • They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose.

Note 1. Commas may be used even when conjunctions are expressed, if the members of the series consist of several words, or if the writer wishes to emphasize their distinctness.

Note 2. Clauses in a series are commonly separated by semicolons unless they are short and simple.

5. To set off words and phrases out of their regular order. Thus,—

Seated on her accustomed chair, with her usual air of apathy and want of interest in what surrounded her, she seemed now and then mechanically to resume the motion of twirling her spindle.—Scott.

6. To separate a long subject from the verb of the predicate. Thus,—

To have passed them over in an historical sketch of my literary life and opinions, would have seemed to me like the denial of a debt.—Coleridge.

7. To set off an appositive noun or an appositive adjective, with its modifiers. Thus,—

I have had the most amusing letter from Hogg, the Ettrick minstrel.

There was an impression upon the public mind, natural enough from the continually augmenting velocity of the mail, but quite erroneous, that an outside seat on this class of carriages was a post of danger.—De Quincey.

Note 1. Many participial and other adjective phrases come under this head. Thus,—

The genius, seeing me indulge myself on this melancholy prospect, told me I had dwelt long enough upon it.—Addison.

Note 2. If a noun and its appositive are so closely connected as to form one idea, no comma is used. Thus,—

My friend Jackson lives in San Francisco.

Note 3. An intensive pronoun (myself, etc.) is not separated by a comma from the substantive which it emphasizes.

Note 4. A series of words or phrases in apposition with a single substantive is sometimes set off, as a whole, by a comma and a dash.

8. To set off a subordinate clause, especially one introduced by a descriptive relative. Thus,—

I am going to take a last dinner with a most agreeable family, who have been my only neighbors ever since I have lived at Weston.—Cowper.

Note. No comma is used before a restrictive relative. Thus,—

  • I want to know many things which only you can tell me.
  • Perhaps I am the only man in England who can boast of such good fortune.

9. To set off a phrase containing a nominative absolute. Thus,—

They had some difficulty in passing the ferry at the riverside, the ferryman being afraid of them.—Defoe.

10. To set off however, nevertheless, moreover, etc., and introductory phrases like in the first place, on the one hand, etc.

11. To set off a parenthetical expression. For this purpose commas, dashes, or marks of parenthesis may be used.

When the parenthetical matter is brief or closely related to the rest of the sentence, it is generally set off by commas. Thus,—

I exercised a piece of hypocrisy for which, I hope, you will hold me excused.—Thackeray.

When it is longer and more independent, it is generally marked off by dashes, or enclosed in marks of parenthesis. The latter are less frequently used at present than formerly.

The connection of the mail with the state and the executive government—a connection obvious, but yet not strictly defined—gave to the whole mail establishment an official grandeur.—De Quincey.

Note. Brackets are used to indicate insertions that are not part of the text.


The clauses of a compound sentence may be separated by colons, semicolons, or commas.

1. The colon is used—

a. To show that the second of two clauses repeats the substance of the first in another form, or defines the first as an appositive defines a noun. Thus,—

This was the practice of the Grecian stage. But Terence made an innovation in the Roman: all his plays have double actions.—Dryden.

b. To separate two groups of clauses one or both of which contain a semicolon. Thus,—

At that time, news such as we had heard might have been long in penetrating so far into the recesses of the mountains; but now, as you know, the approach is easy, and the communication, in summer time, almost hourly: nor is this strange, for travellers after pleasure are become not less active, and more numerous, than those who formerly left their homes for purposes of gain.—Wordsworth.

Note. The colon is less used now than formerly. The tendency is to use a semicolon or to begin a new sentence.

2. The semicolon is used when the clauses are of the same general nature and contribute to the same general effect, especially if one or more of them contain commas. Thus,—

The sky was cloudless; the sun shone out bright and warm; the songs of birds, and hum of myriads of summer insects filled the air; and the cottage garden, crowded with every rich and beautiful tint, sparkled in the heavy dew like beds of glittering jewels.—Dickens.

3. The comma may be used when the clauses are short and simple.

Note. The choice between colon, semicolon, and comma is determined in many cases by the writer’s feeling of the closer or the looser connection of the ideas expressed by the several clauses, and is to some extent a matter of taste.


1. In a complex sentence, the dependent clause is generally separated from the main clause by a comma. But when the dependent clause is short and the connection close, the comma may be omitted.

Note. A descriptive relative clause is preceded by a comma, a restrictive relative clause is not.

2. The clauses of a series, when in the same dependent construction, are often separated by semicolons to give more emphasis to each. Thus,—

[Mrs. Battle] was none of your lukewarm gamesters, your half-and-half players, who have no objection to take a hand if you want one to make up a rubber; who affirm that they have no pleasure in winning; that they like to win one game and lose another; that they can while away an hour very agreeably at a card table, but are indifferent whether they play or no; and will desire an adversary who has slipped a wrong card, to take it up and play another.—Lamb.


1. A direct quotation is enclosed in quotation marks.

Note. If the quotation stands by itself and is printed in different type, the marks may be omitted.

2. A quotation within a quotation is usually enclosed in single quotation marks.

3. In a quotation consisting of several paragraphs, quotation marks are put at the beginning of each paragraph and at the end of the last.

Note. For the punctuation before a quotation,.

4. When a book, poem, or the like, is referred to, the title may be enclosed in quotation marks or italicized.


1. Sudden changes in thought and feeling or breaks in speech are indicated by dashes. Thus,—

Eh!—what—why—upon my life, and so it is—Charley, my boy, so it’s you, is it?—Lever.

2. Parenthetical expressions may be set off by dashes (see p. 308).

3. A colon, or colon and dash, may precede an enumeration, a direct quotation, or a statement formally introduced,—especially with as follows, namely, and the like. Before an enumeration a comma and a dash may be used. Thus,—

  • There are eight parts of speech:—nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Or
  • There are eight parts of speech,—nouns, pronouns, etc.

4. The dash is sometimes used to strengthen a comma (as in the last paragraph but one).


1. The apostrophe is used—

  • a. To mark the omission of a letter or letters in contractions.
  • b. As a sign of the possessive or genitive.
  • c. To indicate the plural of letters, signs, etc.

2. The hyphen is used—

  • a. When the parts of a word are separated in writing.
  • b. Between the parts of some compound words.

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