Overview of Punctuation in English

To see an image of each punctuation mark, roll your mouse over to the right of the name of the punctuation mark.

The Period:

As you already know, the period is used to end a sentence. Periods are also used after many abbreviations (Dr., Ms. etc., but not in acronyms such as UNESCO, NHK, etc.). In academic writing, the period is also used at the end of numbers in lists, section headings, table and figure labels, and at the end of bibliographic references.

The Question Mark:

As you know, the question mark is used at the end of a sentence to indicate a question. It is also used to indicate uncertainty about facts or the topic of discussion as in the following examples:

    He was born in 1940 and moved to Tokyo in 1951 (?).
    Computers have trouble analyzing (?) lots of information at one time.

The Comma:

The comma is perhaps the most frequent and also most complicated punctuation mark in English. Like the semicolon, the comma is used to cut parts of a sentence into easily recognizable pieces. Unlike the semicolon, however, a number of grammatical structures require the use of the comma. This means that the comma is used much more frequently. As a reader, you can use the comma to help read and analyze long sentences. The comma has the following uses:

To divide elements in a simple list:

    The students were divided into advanced, intermediate, and beginning groups.

To divide independent clauses joined by the following coordinating conjunctions: as, and, but, or, nor, for.

To divide subordinate phrases and clauses from the main clause:

    In this study, the same speech act used in 20 different situations is useful in revealing patterns of sociolinguistic transfer under controlled conditions.
    Given the paucity of information, it was impossible to determine the authenticity of the documents.
    By the time the writer left college, she had already won a major national award.

To set off introductory and connecting words and words that interrupt:

    Furthermore, the data did not reveal any major differences among the participants.

To set off nonrestrictive phrases and clauses:

    In the Multiple Language Learning Experiential Report, which will be discussed toward the end of this study, both learners stated clearly that their prior knowledge of Japanese facilitated their acquisition of Korean.

To set off nouns and their modifiers when used in apposition. Apposition means to refer to the same person in a different way. In the following example, John Quincy Adams and the 6th president are the same person.

    George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams, the 6th president, are the only two sons of presidents who became president.

To set off contrasting expressions:

    The participants were all advanced, though not highly proficient, speakers of French.

To separate two or more adjectives:

    The structure stood atop a high, rough ridge that overlooked the valley.

To set off a phrase or clause that interrupts the flow of the sentence. This type of usage is not common in academic writing.

    The idea, I must confess, was entirely new to me.

The Apostrophe:

As you know, the apostrophe is used to indicate possession in English. Be careful not to overuse the apostrophe form of the possessive. The apostrophe form of the possessive is used mainly with things that are possessed by people or animals.

Remember that it's means "it is," whereas its is the possessive form of it.

Quotation Marks:

As you know, quotation marks are used to show direct speech in the text. In academic writing, they are common in the literature review section of a paper and, depending on the bibliographic style, in the list of references at the end of the paper.

Remember that single quotation marks are used to show material that is quoted in the original text:

When using quotation marks, put all other punctuation marks, except the colon and semicolon, inside the quotation mark.

Some special uses of quotation marks:

To indicate the title of articles, chapters, dissertations, poems, songs, short stories, TV shows:

    "The Influence of Japanese Landscaping in North America" (article)
    Chapter 1 "Early Interpretations of the Iliad" (chapter)
    "The Road Not Taken" (poem)
    "Let It Be" (song)
    "At Kinosaki" (short story)

To indicate a special or unique meaning of a word:

    Some of the participants appeared to have "test fatigue."
    "Democracy" means different things to different people.

The Exclamation Point:

The exclamation point is rarely used in academic writing because it is too subjective. Remember that academic writing should be objective and analytical.

The Semicolon:

The semicolon may be new to you. It is used between clauses and to divide long elements of a list. Remember that a clause contains a noun and a verb. Independent clauses can stand alone as sentences, whereas dependent clauses cannot. Phrases are groups of words, usually of the same part of speech. The following examples show uses of the semicolon:

Between two independent clauses:

    Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 795–1868; it remains an important cultural center in Japan today.

To divide long elements of a list:

    The Lake Biwa Canal was built for three main purposes: to bring people and goods from Lake Biwa to Kyoto; to provide a stable supply of water to the city of Kyoto; and to generate electricity for lighting and transportation.

To introduce certain connecting words (accordingly, also, anyhow, besides, consequently, furthermore, hence, however, in addition, indeed, likewise, moreover, nevertheless, still, then, and therefore) that join two independent clauses:

    Kyoto is known as the cultural capital of Japan; however, it is also a major commercial and academic center.

In the above examples, the semicolon cuts and divides parts of a sentence into easily recognized pieces. Think of the semicolon as a knife or a red light. In academic writing, the semicolon is used most commonly to divide long elements of a list.

The Colon:

The colon is completely different from the semicolon. Do not confuse the two or think that they are interchangeable. Like the semicolon, the colon connects two independent clauses. It also introduces lists and long quotations, and is used in the greeting of a letter or e-mail message. Notice the following uses of the colon.

Between two independent clauses:

    Paik knows what every good artist in the late twentieth century should know: mythologized artists sell.

To introduce a list:

    The subjects were divided into three groups: students who completed one semester of Japanese, students who completed one year of Japanese, and students who completed two years of Japanese.

To introduce a long quotation:

  In 1972, Yi Hoesong made a bold prediction: Literature by Koreans in Japan will disappear someday. He said:
           As an insider in the movement of Korean literature in Japan, I can see that it's just a temporary phenomenon. I don't know if what I speak of will happen in ten years or not for decades, but I know that Korean literature in Japan is transitional. That's because its aim as a literature is to rejoin the Korean mainstream of literature. So, in a certain sense, this literature by Koreans in Japan would be better off not lasting long in Japan. At least that's my opinion. The sooner it's over, the better. After all, when Korea is unified, Korean literature in Japan will have no reason to exist.


Parentheses are used to enclose additional information that is inserted into a sentence. This information is not required to understand the sentence. It is usually background information or writer's comments. Notice the following example:

Parentheses also have the following special uses:

To enclose numbers in a list that is embedded in a sentence:

    The results showed that (1) students with good listening skills have good pronunciation and (2) students who read a lot have good writing skills.

To note life spans or other biographical information:

    Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) is one of Japan's most noted philosophers.

In academic writing, parentheses have the following uses:

To enclose references in APA and other author-date bibliographical styles:

    Tanaka (2001) concluded that light rail was the most efficient type of transportation for Kyoto.

To enclose short references in a sentence:

    Regarding the pattern of readability across the curriculum, we found that the increase in volume and difficulty (i.e., decline in readability) between second and third-year textbooks in Japan is more gradual than in Korean textbooks.

The Asterisk:

The asterisk is placed next to words or sentences to indicate notes. If you have more than one note on a page, you may use two or three asterisks to indicate different notes. In academic writing, asterisks are not used to indicate notes in the text, but may be used to indicate note, usually of acknowledgement, to a title. The asterisk is also used to indicate notes to the tables and figures.

The Hyphen:

As you know, the hyphen is used in many compound words that were once separate words. The hyphen has the other special uses:

To indicate compound adjectives:

    Earthquake-resistant buildings are expensive to build.

To combine parts of words to create new words:

    E-learning remains one of the most controversial topics in education today.

The Dash:

The dash is set off material from the rest of the sentence. It can be used instead of commas to set off additional material in the sentence as in the following example:

    Kyoto dialect belongs to Kansai dialect—the dialect of a region of more than 20 million people—but it also retains many unique features.

The dash can also be used to note the additional of a summarizing word, phrase or clause.

The dash is also used to set off the source of a quotation. In this case, the source is usually well know and only the full name or full name and date are given.

A shorter dash is used between dates to indicate a period of time, such as a life span or term of office. This type of dash is called an en-dash, whereas the longer dash discussed above is called an em-dash. The en-dash is often confused with a hyphen. Notice the difference between the three forms:


Ellipses are three periods that are used to indicate omitted parts of quotations. This is convenient when you wish to omit unnecessary parts of a longer quotation.

Ellipses are also used to indicate writer's thoughts or to give hints. This type of usage is common in creative writing, but rare in academic writing.

Remember that when ellipses occur at the end of a sentence, a fourth period is used to complete the sentence.

The Virgule:

The virgule is often called a "slash" and is used in several specialized situations.

In academic writing, some writers use the virgule in "he/she" or "h/she" for gender neutral writing. A better way to deal with gender in academic writing is to use the plural form. The combination "and/or" also appears in some academic writing, but is considered bad style because it is not clear.

The virgule is also used to separate lines of poetry that are quoted as prose in a text.

In other uses, the virgule can replace the word "and" and "per" as in "$50/barrel."


Brackets are used to give writer's, editor's, and translator's comments in a text.

Brackets also have the following special uses:

In academic writing in English, one important use of brackets is to give an English translation of titles of books and articles written in foreign languages.

The Ampersand:

The Ampersand is the & mark and is used to replace and. It is used in APA style for bibliographic references. Do not use the ampersand in the text or in headings in academic writing.


As you know, proper nouns are capitalized. In academic writing, capitalization is frequent, so pay close attention to how it is used in your field. In general, however, the following items are usually capitalized:


Italics are slanted letters that indicate the following:

In academic writing, italics are mainly used for titles, foreign words, and Latin names of genus and species. Remember that some Japanese words have become English words, so you may want to consult a good English-English dictionary to check this. Be careful of using italics for emphasis in academic writing.


Numbers are often difficult to deal with in English. The following guidelines are useful:

Diacritical Marks: Click here for information on diacritical marks used in French, German, Spanish, and Romanized Japanese.