Good punctuation helps the reader understand what the writer wants to say.

Here are some guidelines for the use of common punctuation. Remember, however, that there are often exceptions to the rules!


Apart from beginning a sentence and when writing the personal pronoun “I”, a capital letter is used for personal names and titles, places, days of the week, months, public holidays, languages, nations, religions, nationality adjectives, titles of books and films:

Tommy / Prince Charles / Abbey Road / England / Tuesday / February / Christmas / Fourth of July / Norwegian / Norway / Catholicism / The Catcher in the Rye / Star Wars IV

Comma (,)

A comma is used:

– to separate words and phrases to make the meaning of a sentence. When reading aloud, pause at a comma.

– to separate more than two adjectives: On the ground lay a bright, shiny, new penny.

– to separate words in a list: The recipe calls for apples, bananas, pears, strawberries and grapes.

– to separate description and name: The principal, Mrs Smith, announced the winners of the contest.

– to separate numbers: In 1980, 250 students were given scholarships.

– before and after direct speech: Jim said, “Hello.” “Hello,” Joe answered.

– to prevent misunderstanding:

The students who are wearing blue jeans will be punished.

The students, who are wearing blue jeans, will be punished.

The first sentence means that only those students wearing blue jeans will be punished. The second sentence means that all the students are going to be punished but adds extra information that they are wearing blue jeans.

Full Stop or Period (.)

A full stop is used at the end of a sentence, except where an exclamation mark or question mark is used instead. It is also often used to indicate that a word has been abbreviated:

max. (maximum) Aust. (Australia) e.g. (exempli gratia – for example)

The general ''rule of the thumb'' is that abbreviations which end with the last letter of the word do not require full stops:

Mr (Mister) Dr (Doctor) hr (hour)

Other abbreviations which do not require full stops are those denoting measurements or quantity:

kg (kilogram) km (kilometre) cm (centimetre)

Exclamation Mark (!)

An exclamation mark is used:

– to stress a word or sentence: Help! Of course not!

– to show surprise: Hey! Oh my gosh!

– to give an order: Stop! Follow that car!

Question Mark (?)

Do you need to have the question mark explained?

Apostrophe (‘)

This is a form of punctuation which a lot of people have trouble with. It generally shows possession or “belonging to”.

– For the belongings of one person, put the apostrophe before the s:

Tom’s football, a child’s toy, an artist’s paints

– Impersonal pronouns also use an apostrophe before the s to show possession.

anybody’s pen, someone’s Discman

– Personal pronouns do not have an apostrophe when they end in s:

yours, hers, theirs, its

– For the belongings of more than one person, put the apostrophe after the s:

a writers’ group

– Where the word itself is already plural, put the apostrophe before the s:

a children’s store, old people’s club

– If a word ends in s, add apostrophe s:

Charles’s parents, the Jones’s dog

– An apostrophe is also used for contractions, where figures or letters are left out:

’68 (1968) o’er (over) I’ll (I will) you’re (you are) it’s (it is)

NB! Only use an apostrophe in “it’s” when it means “it is”, not when showing possession, e.g. It’s chasing its own tail.

Quotation Marks (“ “ or ‘ ‘)

Quotation marks are used:

– to enclose direct speech: Sue said, “I’ll be right there”.

– For direct quotations from speech or written work:

The Bible states: “Thou shalt not kill”.

– Around words or phrases that may be debatable: Many “experts” disagree.

– Around words that have been made up for a particular purpose and which are not proper words: It is important to observe good “netiquette” when using a chat program.

– If a quotation is made within direct speech, use single quotation marks inside double quotation marks: Mary said, “I don’t know what ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ means”.

Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 14.08.2006

© Cappelen Damm AS