1. Introduction

Punctuation is a tool which makes it easy to read and understand a written matter. The early Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans made very little use of punctuation marks. After the invention of the movable type for printing in the 15th century, a definite system of punctuation marks was elaborated. A time came when writers became fond of using too many stops. The modern tendency is to use stops only when they are essential.

(a) Here is a Latin quotation of early days without any spacing and punctuation marks:


The English rendering is: “Trust not the horse, O Trojans, I fear the Greeks even when bearing gifts.”

(b) An example of excessive use of stops: Shakespeare, it is true, had, as I have said, as respects England, the privilege which only first-comers enjoy. (Quoted from The King’s English by Fowler.)

(c) An example without any stops (from the inscriptions on a building at the Central Institute of English, Hyderabad)






2. Punctuation marks

The principal punctuation marks are:

Punctuation Marks (Open Image)

The comma (,); The colon (:); The semicolon (;); The full stop (.); The note of exclamation (!)

The note of interrogation (?); The dash (), The apostrophe ( , ), Thw quotation mark (); The brackets (), {}, []

3. The Comma

The Comma is the most frequently used punctuation mark. le represents the shortest pause and its uses vary from writer to writer.

Note: There are some circumstances in which it must be used, some in which it may be used, and others in which it is impermissible to use it. The general tendency is to err on the side of excess. No absolute rule can be laid down, but on the whole, it seems a sound principle to omit the comma if it can be omitted.” –Current English Usage by F. T. Wood.

General Usage of Comma

(1) Between words of the same Part of Speech: e.g., Ram, Kamal, and Reba went home. The soldier was reliable, fearless, and intelligent. A dull, heavy sound was heard.

Notes: (i) The comma before and in a list is often omitted : Ram, Kamal and Reba went home. This, however, tends to link the last two words in the list more closely than the previous words and may sometimes result in ambiguity.

(ii) When two or more conjunctions are used, commas are not needed: The soldier was reliable and fearless and intelligent.

(iii) No comma is used where and joins two single words or phrases: Ram and Kamal went home.

(2) When the pairs of words are specially connected, commas are used: e.g., I ordered fish and chips, and bread and butter. High and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish, all must die.

(3) To separate adjectives preceding a noun: e.g., He is a reliable, fearless, intelligent soldier.

Note: “When the adjective immediately preceding the noun is in closer relation to the noun than the other one(s), omit the comma: He was a brave little boy.” –Heaton Stocks.

(4) Between repeated words: e.g., I will never, never do this Hark, hark, the lark is singing.

(5) Between two similar or nearly similar verbs: e.g., Who he is, is nobody’s business. One who lives, lives not for ever.

(6) To indicate the omission of a verb: e.g., To err is human, to forgive, divine. He got a pen; I, a watch.

(7) After a nominative absolute: The sun having set, we went home. Dinner over, the guests left the place.

8) To mark of words and phrases like therefore, however, moreover, nevertheless, in fact, etc. in their usual function as sentence adverbs, modifying a sentence as a whole: He was however, justified in his actions, The man was, in fact, a fool.

Note: But, However hard he works, he will not succeed. Here however introduces a clause.

(9) Before of when denoting a place of residence: Mr Das of Gauhati, Assam.

(10) After digits which denote the thousand: 4,312

(11) Between the day of the month and the year: May 4, 2023, (This comma is sometimes omitted in Modern English.)

(12) To mark off a noun or phrase in apposition: Milton, the great English poet, was blind.

(13) To mark off vocatives: “Come into the garden, Mud’

(14) Before and after a participial phrase : Alexander, having conquered Persia, invaded India.

(15) To mark off a direct quotation: He said to me, “Work and pray.”

(16) To separate a long subject from the verb: The injustice done to that great saint, is now clear to us.

(17) Usually after a dependent clause (particularly an adverb clause) beginning a sentence: If you want to be happy, love others. That he would succeed, no one ever doubted.

Note: He sang because he must. Here the adverbial clause follows the principal clause, and no comma is needed.

4. The Semicolon

The semicolon is the “three-quarter stop ranking between the full stop and the comma.

  1. It stands between two related clauses of a sentence that are nor actually joined by a conjunction: To err is human; to forgive, divine.
  2.  It is commonly used before a clause beginning with a conjunctive adverb like therefore, then, however, so: lt is raining very bard today; so we shall not go out.

5. The Colon

The colon is a traffic policeman pointing to the right. Most often it indicates that a list of things follows.

(1) It is a substitute for viz, that is to say, i.e. : “These I have loved: white plates and cups.

(2) It often stands after said in a substantial passage of direct speech: The teacher said: “We must prosper in life.”

(3) It is often followed by a dash to introduce a quotation: Bacon says:-Reading maketh a full man; conference a eady man ; and writing an exact man.”

(4) It is used before examples: The main parts of a verb in English are: the present tense, the past tense, and the past participle.

6. The Full Stop

(1) The full stop ends all sentences except questions and exclamations and is followed by a capital letter as the first letter in the next sentence: Pray without ceasing.

(2) Generally it is used to denote abbreviations: Thus, Gen. or General ; Jan. for January. But in Modern English the full top is rarely used when the first and last letters are used in abbreviations. Dr (for Doctor), Mr (for Mister), etc. are preferred to Dr., Mr., etc.

7. The Question mark (The Note of Interrogation)

The question mark seems to represent an abbreviation of the Latin word quaestio, “a question”. It is used at the end of a direct question: “If you prick us, do we not bieed?”-Shakespeare.

Notes: (i) The question mark is not used after an indirect question: He asked me whether I should go home.

(ii) Sometimes a sentence is broken up into several small questions: Are you satan? or devil? or spirit?

(iii) You need not use a question mark at the end of a long request starting Will you, Would you, etc: Would you kindly grant me casual leave for seven days Will you please arrange to send the following books.

8. The exclamation mark (The Note of Exclamation)

The exclamation mark seems to be an abbreviation of the Latin word lo (i.e. joy) which was originally written lo. This mark (!) should always be used after grammatical exclamations. MEU classifies it thus:

(i) Interjections: oh! alas!

(ii) Words or phrases used as interjections: By Jove! Heavens!

(iii) Sentences containing the exclamatory what and how: What a catch! How hot it is!

(iv)Wishes: God forbid! Confound you!

(v) Apostrophes: “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour.”

(vi) MEU further says that the exclamation mark is suitable to the expression of scornful quotations: And you told me he could not play!

Note: The interjection O before the nominative of address does not take the mark after it but after the noun: or the mark may be placed after the sentence: O father! Hear me. O Hamlet, Speak no more!

9. Brackets

A parenthesis is an “aside” or “breaking off” from the normal construction of the sentence. It does not grammatically belong to the sentence. Brackets are used to enclose this Parenthesis.

 “He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished) a friend.”

10. The Dash

1. A single dash is but a kind of ornamental comma, Occurring usually at the end of sentences to mark an abrupt stop or break or change of thought: “Rome shall perish – write that word In the blood that she has spilt”.

2. It is used to summarize a scattered subject: Relatives, friends, companions – all have deserted him.

11. The Hyphen

The hyphen is a shorter line (-) than a dash (–).

1. It is used to connect the parts of a compound word: Passer-by, father-in-law, man-of-war.

2. It is used to connect the parts of a word carried to the next line.

Notes: (i) The hyphen seems to be much in disfavor now. With constant use the hyphen wears off and two words coalesce into one (e.g. anything, nobody, somebody, today, tomorrow, etc); or sometimes the words are completely separated. (i.e. five year plan, a five foot long stick, etc.)

(ii) Carving over a part of a word to the next line should be avoided as far as possible. If division is necessary divide (a) according to syllables: dis-cuss, laugh-ter, etc. (b) Do not divide a word of one syllable: said, fought, etc. (c) Divide between the noun and the prefix or suffix: pre-war, honest-ly. (d) Divide between double consonants: cab-bage, rib-bon, etc. (e) Do not divide consonants pronounced as one.

12. The Apostrophe

The apostrophe is represented in print by a raised comma. It is used:

(i) In the contraction of words employed in speech and reproduced in writing: Doesn’t. it’s, thro’, o’er.

(ii) In the genitive case of nouns and certain indefinite pronouns: The main rule for the genitive apostrophe in nouns may be summarized thus: Singular noun+’s.

Notes: The exceptions are: (a) Classical names like Mars’, Venus’ and the genitive of such phrases as for goodness’ sake, for conscience’ sake. (b) Plural nouns ending in s: Plural noun+an apostrophe after the final s: girls’ school. (c) Plural nouns without s: Plutal noun+’s: men’s duty.

(iii) In the plural of letters and figures: Cross your t’s and dot your i’s. Add two 3’s and four 5’s. (But in Modern English – Add two 3s and four 5s –etc. are in use)

13. Inverted Commas (Quotation Marks)

Inverted commas are used:

(i) In actual quotations (from literature) and direct speech.

(ii) In a direct speech the inverted commas are broken to enclose the actual words of the speaker: “I intend,” he said, “to go to London tomorrow.”

(iii) When one quotation or one direct speech occurs inside another, the best practice is to enclose the main quotation or direct speech in single inverted commas and the subsidiary parts in double inverted commas: I heard him say, “I shall be returning tomorrow.”

Note: Inverted commas are a modem invention. The Bible is plain enough without them. The literature of the 18th century could do without them.

14. The Asterisk

A symbol (*) is used in the text as a pointer to an annotation or footnote.