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Punctuation Rules

Elizabeth O'Brien

Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar. 

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Punctuation Rules

Punctuation rules can confuse the best of us. When do we use semicolons? What are the rules for commas? When do we use apostrophes and quotation marks? Use this guide to help you! But first...why are punctuation rules so confusing? Watch the video to find out!

Comma Rules

Commas show your reader that there is a pause in the sentence they are reading. It seems as if commas have more punctuation rules than any other form of punctuation. I've narrowed it down to eight rules for you.

1. Commas After Introductory Words and Clauses

2. Commas With Lists

When you list three or more things, use commas between the words.

  • I would like grapes, apples, and cookies.
  • Are we having fish, chicken, or beef for dinner?

3. Commas Between Multiple Modifiers (Adjectives & Adverbs)

  • My new car ran quietly, quickly, and smoothly. 
  • I love this warm, fuzzy, pink sweater! 
  • It was a bright, sunny day.

Learn more about commas between adjectives here.

4. Commas With Numbers

When a number is over 999, use commas to separate the numbers.

  • I paid $3,500 for my new boat.
  • The house is $600,000.

5. Commas With Dates And Addresses

  • November 1, 2015
  • I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
  • Send the package to 5154 Smith Street, Los Angeles, California 92674.

6. Commas With Quotations

When you are quoting someone's exact speech, you must use quotation marks and a comma.

  • My sister exclaimed, "You came home!"
  • "I missed you," I said.

7. Commas Joining Independent Clauses

When you join two independent clauses, use a comma and a coordinating conjunction. When you have two independent clauses joined only by a comma, it's called a comma splice. You should avoid comma splices.

  • I love cats, but I also love dogs.
  • Can you come, or should I go?
  • My sister had a ballet performance, and my brother had an orchestra concert.

8. Commas Setting Off Nonrestrictive (Nonessential) Elements

Nonrestrictive elements add information to the sentence, but they're not essential to the meaning of the sentence. We could remove them, and the sentence would still make sense. I know this sounds a bit confusing, but I have a really good trick that will help you remember this, and you can learn about it on this page that covers commas with appositives.

  • My sister, a French teacher, lived in France for two years.
  • Mike and Bri graduated from UWEC, my alma mater.

Periods

1. Ending Sentences

Use these to end declarative sentences and imperative sentences

  • The sun is shining today.
  • Open the door.

2. Abbreviations (shortened forms of words)

  • I spoke with Sgt. Johnson about the troops.

Question Marks

The punctuation rules for question marks are very simple. In fact, there is really only one rule!

1. Ending Sentences

These end interrogative sentences. This kind of sentence asks a question. Any time you ask a question, end the sentence with a question mark.

  • Should I use a question mark on this sentence? (Yes!)

Exclamation Marks

When should you use exclamation marks

1. Ending Sentences

Use these at the end of exclamatory sentences (sentences that show emotion).

  • We won the game!

2. Interjections

You can use either an exclamation mark or a comma after an interjection.

  • Yes! We won the game!
  •  Yes, we won the game.

Semicolons

Use these to separate two complete sentences that are closely related.

  • I went to the play; my cousin was the main actor.

Watch me diagram a sentence with a semicolon here.

Colons

There are three ways to use colons

1. Introducing Lists

  • There are three ways that I love to relax: reading magazines, practicing yoga, and taking baths.

2. Introducing Single Items

You can use a colon to introduce a single thing when you want to emphasize it.

  • After shopping for eight hours, I finally found them: the perfect pair of jeans.

3. Between Two Complete Sentences

This is only a legit move if the second sentence states a logical consequence of whatever is stated in the first sentence. 

  • Jim ate brownies constantly: he gained seven pounds.

Apostrophes

The punctuation rules for apostrophes are some of the most commonly misused punctuation rules ever. The rules are pretty simple. There are only three times when you should use apostrophes.

1. To Show Possession

When you want to make something possessive (to show ownership), use an apostrophe.

  • This isMark's cat.  (The cat belongs to Mark.)
  • That is the television's remote control. (The remote control belongs to the television.)
  • Don't ever go into the teachers' lounge. (The lounge belongs to the teachers.)

2. To Show Omission

Contractions use apostrophes to stand in the place of missing letters.

  • I can't stand the smell of bananas! (can't = cannot)
  • It's already five o'clock(o'clock = of the clock)
  • The students shouldn't use cell phones in class. (shouldn't = should not

3. To Form Strange Plurals

Use apostrophes to make lowercase letters plural.

  • Dot the i's and cross the t's.

Quotation Marks

Here are two times you when should use quotation marks.

1. Quoting Exact Speech

Whenever you quote someone's exact speech, you must use quotation marks.

  • The police officer said, "Where are you going?"
  • "I'm going to work," I replied.

2. Titles

Use quotation marks to show the titles of magazine articles, chapters, short stories, essays, poems, and songs.

  • "Columbus" is a great poem.
  • Our homework tonight is to read Chapter 6, "The Lovely Rose Garden."
  • Sydney sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at the football game.

I hope this list of punctuation rules was helpful.

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