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Punctuation: A short guide: Home

academic skills guide to punctuation

Punctuation helps your reader. It ensures that your sentences flow and your ideas are clear. Without effective punctuation, your reader may stumble and be distracted from your arguments. 

Punctuation is a huge area and this short guide can only touch the surface. One of the best ways to improve your skills is by reading widely and paying attention to the way punctuation is used in published writing such as books, journals articles and broadsheet newspapers. 

Full Stops

Mastering full stops is vital for clear writing. Common mistakes include using a comma instead of a full stop between two complete sentences, and the opposite error: using a full stop where a comma should go, creating a fragmented sentence. 


Commas can be tricky. They have several uses. Below are some of the most common. You should use commas to separate clauses (sections) of complex sentences. For example:

After talks broke down, relations between the two countries became even more strained. 

Words like 'however,' 'consequently,' 'instead' and 'therefore' should have a comma after them if they are the first word in a sentence. For example:

However, there is evidence to contradict this approach. 

Before the words 'and', 'but' and 'because,' you can either use a comma or leave it out, but if the sentence is long and complex, a comma can make it easier to read (as in this sentence). To take another example:

The talks were conducted against a background of increasing distrust between representatives from both side, and relations between the two countries consequently deteriorated. 

Commas separate items in a list. For example:

Relations between the two countries were characterised by distrust, hostility and caution. 


Colons can be used:

  • Before a list

This essay will discuss three possible contributing factors to the London Riots: social media, issues of social identity, and dissatisfaction resulting from perceived inequality.

  • Before a quotation

James (2012) is dismissive of Kingsley Amis's approach: ' How could one be guiltless of them all?'

  • Before an explanation or example of something just mentioned. 

The paper raises one important question: how could these problems be address?

  • Using colons and semi-colons with a complex list:

In the survey, people living in the area reported that their major concerns were as follows: lack of good quality public transport links; distance to the nearest hospital or medical centre; lack of career opportunities to encourage young people to stay in the area; and the uncertain future of the agricultural industry. 

Semi Colons

Semi colons can be used to separate two complete sentences that are very closely connected. 

The clauses either side of a semi colon should be able to stand alone and still make sense. For example:

Talks were conducted against a background of increasing distrust; relations between the two countries subsequently deteriorated. 

Try not to use too many semi colons in your academic writing. Often a full stop is clearer. However, semi colons can be useful to show a strong link between two sentences or ideas.


Getting apostrophes wrong, or omitting them altogether, can make your academic writing appear sloppy. It is important to learn and practise the two uses for an apostrophe. 


Adding an apostrophe and then 's' to a word shows that the person or thing owns something. For example:

The government's decision has huge consequences. 

Here the decision belongs to the government. If the original word already ends in 's,' the apostrophe is placed at the end, but with no extra 's.' For example:

Holmes' study support this idea. 


Apostrophes also show where letters have been removed. For example, in the word 'don't' which is a shorter version of 'do not,' the apostrophe shows the omissions of the second 'o'.

Tip: What apostrophes cannot do is show that something is plural. This is a common mistake, The following is an incorrect example of apostrophe use: The study used twenty participant's from different ethic backgrounds. The 'participant' does not possess anything, and no letters have been omitted, so the apostrophe would be needed if you wanted to say, for example: At the end of the study, the twenty participants' scores were compared. 

One more punctuation mark- to avoid!!!

You hardly ever need to use an exclamation mark in an essay. It is intended to express feelings and emotions and is very rarely used in academic writing. You might use it if you were reporting the direct speech of an interviewee: The participant stated: "Frankly the benefits situation is driving me bonkers!" However, generally, it is best to forget the exclamation mark in your academic writing. 


There are many other forms of punctuation, but this short guide has aimed to summarise some of the most commonly misused types. It is important to think about punctuation whilst writing, and to check it at the proofreading stage. Your punctuation should make your writing clearer and easier to read.

Finally, a video resource has also been made available through LinkedIn Learning for more information about punctuation,  should you wish to take your learning on this topic further. 

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