Last updated: Sunday, July 12, 2015

Punctuation is needed to guide readers through a text: it aids their understanding, and when used well it makes a text easier and quicker to read. In this section we offer a brief guide to usage and common concerns.

Abbreviations. The stops used in abbreviations for titles are occasionally a cause of angst. The general rule is that they only take a full stop at the end if they have been cut short by the final letters of the word being chopped off. If the last letter of the abbreviation is the same as the last letter of the full word then a full stop is not needed (hence Mr and Dr, but Prof. and Chief Exec.). Abbreviations for titles and organisations, or acronyms, do not need stops between letters (e.g. GP, MHRA, CNS).

Apostrophes. These are used to indicate possession only and never to make plurals. They come before the 's' in the singular and afterwards in the plural. For example:

  • My doctor's repeat prescribing has been reviewed by a pharmacist  (one doctor).
  • All my doctors' prescriptions are checked by a pharmacist  (lots of doctors).
  • Will all doctors please attend the meeting this morning  (doctor is simply plural here).

Proper nouns are a particular problem, so stick with what a recognised authority uses (e.g. King’s Cross but Potters Bar; St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, but St. James’s Hospital in Leeds).

Dashes. It is held by some that dashes are a sign of sloppy English – this is not true. They can fulfil a variety of functions but most commonly they connect what would otherwise be two short but related sentences – as in the previous sentence here – or they can effectively substitute for brackets as has just been demonstrated.

Exclamation marks. Avoid them in professional writing unless you’re deliberately seeking a very informal style, otherwise they tend to look tacky. In punctuation terms, they are the equivalent of someone laughing at their own joke.

Courtesy of Simon Wills
Question marks. Not all ‘questions’ need a question mark: only direct questions take this piece of punctuation. Indirect questions do not need question marks ('I asked a colleague if this was a normal result for a man of his age.'). Prompts on questionnaires that are not questions also do not need question marks (e.g. Q1 What is your name? Q2 Tell me what you think of the hospital).

Speech marks and inverted commas. American English and UK English differ in their use of these for highlighting unusual terms or phrases within a sentence. Traditionally, in the UK single quotes (inverted commas) are preferred, in the US speech marks are used. No-one will be too upset by whichever side of the Atlantic you opt for.

Stops. There are four of these: commas, semi-colons, colons and full stops. They tend to indicate an ascending magnitude of pause for the reader, helping to ensure a text flows and makes sense.

  • Commas are a brief pause and, despite what some traditionalists may tell you, it is perfectly ok to use them before the word ‘and’ if needed. 
  • Full stops indicate the end of a sentence. 
  • The use of semi-colons is a bit of an art; you can use them where you want a bigger pause than a comma, but do not want to end the sentence. 
  • Colons tend to introduce a further explanation of the preceding text (see opening sentence on this page) or a series of examples (see the first sentence above under 'Stops').
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