How to correctly use the punctuation marks in English

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

How to correctly use the punctuation marks in English
Questions based on Punctuation marks have been asked in competitive exams frequently. These concepts are really important if you are looking at some of the banking exams or exams like SNAP. It is a good way to check a person’s ‘Verbal Ability’. With the help of my friend Sanket, I have a compiled a set of some examples followed by some previous year questions that can help you understand the concept better.

The Purpose of Punctuation:

Punctuation is used to disambiguate a sentence by using spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices

Punctuation introduces appropriate pauses in sentences, and elicits appropriate responses from the reader

Observe the difference in the following

Woman, without her man, is nothing – (Importance of men)

Woman: without her, man is nothing – (Importance of women)

Common Punctuation Marks:

•Full stop or Period (.)
•Comma (,)
•Semicolon (;)
•Colon (:)
•Quotation marks (“ __”, ‘__’)
•Question mark (?)
•Exclamation mark (!)
•Brackets ( ) [ ] {}
•Apostrophe (’)
•Hyphen (-)
•Dash (–) (—)
•Slash (/)
•Ellipsis (. . . )

Full Stop or Period:

The Full Stop (.) are used:

1.To mark the end of a sentence that is a complete statement e.g. My name’s Mark.
2.In some abbreviations, for example etc., Dec., or p.m.

If the abbreviation ends the sentence, no additional full stop is required

e.g. I am going to settle in Washington, D.C.

If the abbreviation appears at the end of a question, a question mark must be followed,

e.g. Are you going to settle in D.C.?


The Comma (,) is used to mark a slight break between different parts of a sentence

1.In lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, phrases etc. – e.g. My breakfast is eggs, bacon, and porridge.
2.In direct speech – e.g. She said to me, “ I love you.”
3.To separate clauses – e.g. I know what I want, and what they want.
4.To mark off certain parts of a sentence – e.g. Mary, my wife, is an artist.
5.To introduce a participial phrase – e.g. Walking down the road, I saw a baby crying
6.To introduce tag questions – e.g. She will come here, won’t she?

The Oxford Comma or The Serial Comma

It is the comma used before the conjunction ‘and’

When is it necessary and when it is not:
I want three fruits: an apple, a pear and an orange – (The comma is not needed before ‘and’)
I want the following: a beer, some crisps, pork and vegetable pies – (Is it pork, and vegetable pies?)
A book dedication: “To my parents, Cindy Crawford and God – (Whose child are you?)


The Semicolon (;) is used to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop.

For example:

1.To separate the closely related independent clauses

E.g. The railway line runs through a beautiful, wooded valley; the river follows it.

2.To organise an exceptionally descriptive list

e.g. We invited the following members: Ron Howard, Professor of English; David Abbott, Professor of Physics; Jenny McCarthy, Professor of History; Sue Lynn, Professor of Psychology

Semicolon and Conjunctions

The Semicolon is used before all conjunctions in English except FANBOYS

For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So

FANBOYS are always preceded by the comma, and not the semicolon

For example:

I am not present in the room, however, my methods are. – (Incorrect)

I am not present in the room; however, my methods are. – (Correct)

I am not present in the room; but my methods are. – (Incorrect)

I am not present in the room, but my methods are. – (Correct – ‘But’ is a FANBOYS conjunction)

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The Colon (:) is used in the following ways:

1.Between two main clauses in cases where the second clause explains or follows from the first

e.g. It wasn’t easy: to begin with, I had to find the right paper.

2. To introduce a list

e.g. The kit includes the following: a pen, a notepad, and an apple.

3.Before a quotation, and sometimes before direct speech:

He shouted: “The next time I stand up here, I will have answers to these questions.”

Quotation Marks

Quotation Marks are of 2 types:

A.Double quotation marks (“__”)
B.Single Quotation marks (‘___’)
1.Double Quotation marks indicate the beginning and end of direct speech

e.g. “Is that all?”, he asked.

2.Single Quotation marks are used to mark off a word or phrase that’s being discussed, or that’s being directly quoted from somewhere else

e.g. She calls it ‘the memory of trees.’

Some writers use Single Quotation marks (Instead of Double) to introduce direct speech,

and Double Quotation marks (Instead of Single) to mark off words

This is considered acceptable as per British English

If one quote is introduced within another, the ‘inside’ quote must appear in quotation marks different from those of the ‘outside’ one

For example:

He said, “She said, ‘I do not agree to the plan.’ ” – (Correct – As per American English)

He said, ‘She said, “I do not agree to the plan.” ’ – (Also correct – As per British English)

Question Mark

The Question mark (?) is used to introduce the following:

1.The end of a question e.g. Have you seen the film yet?
2.To introduce tag questions e.g. He is here, isn’t he?

DO NOT use question marks before indirect questions

For example:

Where was he? – (Correct – A Direct question)

I wondered where he was? – (Incorrect – An Indirect question)

I wondered where he was. (Correct – An indirect question ends with a full stop)

Exclamation mark

The Exclamation mark (!) is used to end sentences that express an exclamation, such as
Emphatic expressions of surprise and astonishment
e.g. Yay! We won! – (Surprise)

Expression of sarcastic statements
e.g. What a lovely day! – (When it is a particularly bad day)

DO NOT use the Exclamation Mark with the Question Mark
She is coming here?! – (Incorrect)
She is coming here! (Correct)
Is she coming here? (Also correct)


Brackets are of 3 kinds: Round ( ), Curly { }, and Square [ ]

Round brackets, also called Parentheses, give additional information
e.g. Mount Everest (8,848 meters) is a tough climb.

Curly Brackets also known as Braces introduce equal choices
e.g. choose a colour {red, white, blue, pink} to paint the wall.

Square brackets can be used for clarification if the original sentence includes a noun or pronoun that is unclear
e.g. She said, “He [the police officer] can’t prove they did it.”


The Apostrophe (’) is used to indicate the following:

Possession – e.g. Ben’s daughter
Contraction – e.g. I’m over it! (Instead of ‘I am’)

A possessive form is spelled with ‘s at the end – e.g. Claire’s friend
This rule applies in cases even with a name ending in s – e.g. James’s friend
A plural noun which already ends in s takes only a following apostrophe – e.g. The ladies’ room
Jones’s laundry (owned by one person named Jones)
Joneses’ laundry (owned by more than one person named Jones)


The Hyphen (-) is used in the following ways:

To link words and parts of words e.g. well-known, good-looking
To clarify the meaning intended e.g. recovering and re-covering
To express compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine
To express a written fraction – between the numerator and the denominator e.g. Two-thirds
To express a number forming an adjectival compound e.g. I am going on a 3-week holiday


Dashes (-) (–) are used in the following ways:

To add parenthetical statements/comments e.g. All of them – John, Greg, and Jean – passed the exam.
To create emphasis in a sentence e.g. The wine – it was French – complemented the main course
To create breaks in thought and shifts in tone e.g. He can look at a map for hours – it fascinates him!

There are two kinds of dashes
The En dash (-) that has the same width as that of the letter ‘n’
The Em dash (–) that has the same width as that of the letter ‘m’

The Difference between the En Dash and the Em Dash
The En Dash (-) is used to make space between the following:

A chronological range e.g. J. Krishnamurti (1895-1986) was a highly original thinker.
Clock hours e.g. 6:30-8:30 PM
Numbers and letters in an indexing scheme e.g. Please check the exhibit 12-C

The Em Dash (–) is used everywhere else – primarily substituting commas, parentheses, and colons.
However, the Em Dash is always more emphatic than these three punctuation marks.


The Slash (/) also known as Solidus is used the following ways:

The word substitute for ‘or’ which indicates a choice (often mutually-exclusive)
e.g. He/She may be able to do it.

In place of the Latin preposition  ‘cum’
e.g. His office/study room (Same as ‘His office-cum-study room’)

Substitute for the En Dash
e.g. The London/Croydon train leaves at 5 (Same as ‘London-Croydon’ train)


The Ellipsis ( . . . ) is used to indicate an omission.
Each full stop should have a single space on either side,
except when adjacent to a quotation mark, in which case there should be no space

For example:
If only you were there . . . It doesn’t matter anymore. – (without adjacent quotation marks)
‘Well! I mean…’ – (with adjacent quotation marks – No spaces before or after the full stops)
I work with a newspaper writer, and my wife works with a magazine – (Correct but repetitive)
I work with a newspaper, and my wife, with a magazine – (Shortened with an Elliptical Comma)

Previous Year Questions on Punctuation Marks

Q1. What Punctuation Does the following Sentence Require?
Part of Australia is known to the natives as The Outback.

Inverted commas

(SNAP 2009)

Q2. What Punctuation Does the following Sentence Require?
I know that you want to learn to drive Rima but you are too young
Inverted commas

(SNAP 2009)

Q3. Identify the Grammatically Correct and Appropriate Sentence(s) – CAT 2007

A. When I returned to home, I began to read
B. everything I could get my hand on about Israel.
C. That same year Israel’s Jewish Agency sent
D. a Shaliach a sort of recruiter to Minneapolis.
E. I became one of his most active devotees.
(1) C & E
(2) C only
(3) E only
(4) B, C & E
(5) C, D & E

Q4. Choose the one which is correctly punctuated? – XAT 2007

1. Last Sunday, we went canoeing on the Brahmaputra river. You could see eagles high in the trees above us.

2. While we were canoeing last Sunday on the Brahmaputra river, high in the trees above us, you could see eagles.

3. We went canoeing last Sunday on the Brahmaputra river, and high in the trees above us, we could see eagles.

4. High in the trees above, the eagles were looking down at you, as we canoed on the Brahmaputra river last Sunday.

5. High above in the trees, eagles were looking at us, as we canoed on the Brahmaputra river last Sunday.

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CAT Questions related to Reading Comprehension

All questions from CAT Exam Verbal Ability
Verbal Ability – Summary
       Q1: To me, a “classic” means precisely the opposite of what my predecessors understood
       Q2: A translator of literary works needs a secure hold upon the two languages involved, supported by a good measure of familiarity with the two cultures.
       Q3: For each of the past three years, temperatures have hit peaks not seen since the birth of meteorology, and probably not for more than 110,000 years.
       Q4: North American walnut sphinx moth caterpillars (Amorpha juglandis) look like easy meals for birds
       Q5: Both Socrates and Bacon were very good at asking useful questions.
       Q6: A fundamental property of language is that it is slippery and messy and more liquid than solid, a gelatinous mass that changes shape to fit.
Verbal Ability – Parajumbles
       Q1: The process of handing down implies not a passive transfer, but some contestation in defining what exactly is to be handed down.
       Q2: Scientists have for the first time managed to edit genes in a human embryo to repair a genetic mutation
       Q3: The study suggests that the disease did not spread with such intensity, but that it may have driven human migrations across Europe and Asia.
       Q4: This visual turn in social media has merely accentuated this announcing instinct of ours
       Q5: The implications of retelling of Indian stories, hence, takes on new meaning in a modern India.
       Q6: Before plants can take life from atmosphere, nitrogen must undergo transformations similar to ones that food undergoes in our digestive machinery.
       Q7: This has huge implications for the health care system as it operates today
       Q8: Johnson treated English very practically, as a living language, with many different shades of meaning
Verbal Ability – Odd One Out
       Q1: People who study children’s language spend a lot of time watching how babies react to the speech they hear around them.
       Q2: Neuroscientists have just begun studying exercise’s impact within brain cells — on the genes themselves.
       Q3: The water that made up ancient lakes and perhaps an ocean was lost.
       Q4Although we are born with the gift of language, research shows that we are surprisingly unskilled when it comes to communicating with others.
       Q5: Over the past fortnight, one of its finest champions managed to pull off a similar impression.
       Q6: Those geometric symbols and aerodynamic swooshes are more than just skin deep.

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a) 1000+ Videos covering entire CAT syllabus
b) 2 Live Classes (online) every week for doubt clarification
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Ravi Handa
Founder, Handa Ka Funda

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