Clear and coherent writing: punctuation

The most common misuse of punctuation is round the use of commas and semi-colons (for example instead of colons). This page summarises the main punctuation rules with examples.

 Using commas

Commas are used:

  • To separate elements in a series

She bought sugar, honey, milk, flour and spices.

  • To separate non-essential elements from a sentence

My new car, a red Volvo, needs new tires.

  • Between coordinate adjectives (adjectives that are equal and reversible)

The irritable, fidgety child jumped up and ran away.

  • After an introductory phrase, prepositional phrase, or dependent clause

To get a good grade, you must complete all your assignments.

When she realized she had overslept, Jane jumped out of bed.

  • After a transitional element (however, therefore, nonetheless, also, otherwise, finally, instead, thus, of course, above all, for example, in other words, as a result, on the other hand, in conclusion, in addition).
  • In compound sentences. To join two independent clauses by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so)

The reparation will be inconvenient, but it is necessary.

The new house has a large deck, so I am sure she will like it.

Note: because is not a coordinating conjunction:  I did not hand in the paper because it was not finished.

! Don’t use a comma to separate two verbs with the same subject

Alysa bought the pizzas and delivered them to the house.

Alysa bought the pizzas, and she delivered them to the house.

! Restrictive modifiers do not require a comma

The rooms that we painted feel welcoming.

The rooms, which we painted, feel welcoming.

  • Use commas to indicate a pause, when confusion is possible

With supplies low prices of bread and butter will increase.

With supplies low, prices of bread and butter will increase.


Using semicolons (;)

Use semicolons sparingly. If used incorrectly, they can lengthen sentences and prevent clarity.

Semicolons are used:

  • When two independent clauses are very closely linked and the relationship between them is obvious, but you don’t want a connecting word

They had all left; the house was very quiet.

  • To join elements of a series when individual items of the series already include commas

The games were held in cities such as Paris, France; Sydney, Australia; Valparaiso, Chile and Washington, USA.

  • To join two independent clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, moreover, furthermore, thus, meanwhile, nonetheless, otherwise) or a transition (in fact, for example, that is, for instance, in addition, in other words, on the other hand, even so)

Elections in Australia have become a major media topic; in fact, elections are always reported on the first page.

Using colons (:)

Do not confuse the use of colons and semicolons.

Colons are used:

  • After an independent clause when it is followed by a list, a quotation, appositive, or other idea directly related to the independent clause

Julie went to the store for some groceries: milk, bread, coffee, and cheese.

She has the perfect job: a journalist.

Parentheses (

They are used to separate additional information (often non-essential material) such as dates, clarifying information, or sources, from a sentence.

Leos Carax (1960-present) claimed ‘We all get a little tired of being ourselves sometimes. The answer is to reinvent yourself, but how do you do that and what is the cost?’

Dashes –

Dashes are used to:

  • set off or emphasise content enclosed within dashes or the content that follows a dash

Long hair – if well cut  – makes you look younger. 

  • set off an appositive phrase that already includes commas. An appositive is a word that adds explanatory or clarifying information to the noun that precedes it.

The girls – Ana, Alysa, Annabelle – traveled around the world.


Are used to:

  • indicate possession

The girl’s rabbit ate all the flowers.

The girls’ rabbit ate all the flowers.

  • abbreviate a word:

Don’t do this.


Decades (1970s) do not need an apostrophe.

Its (possessive) does not need apostrophe.

Quotation marks

  • To enclose direct quotations

‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.’ (Obama, 2011)

Note; do not use quotation marks and italics – both are used to set off text – no need to use two separate devices to do so.

  • To indicate special use of a word

The history of ‘democracy’ started with ……..

The ‘fresh’ fish on the market…

  • Around titles

‘My name is red’ by Orhan Pamuk.

Quotation marks aim to separate a word or words from a text. If words have already been separated e.g. using italics, there is no need to add quotation marks.

Double “ or simple ‘ quotation marks?

Just be consistent in how you use them!

Ellipsis (…)

  • Used to show a passage is missing.

Brackets [ ]

  • Used if you add some information that is yours

‘In the last three years, they [the students] broke at least three computers’.