An English Punctuation Review

Whether you’re a native speaker or an English learner, it never hurts to brush up on your punctuation.
closeup of keyboard featuring english punctuation

Is English punctuation really all that important? Let’s look at this classic written joke: “Let’s eat Grandma!” and “Let’s eat, Grandma!” What’s the difference? A little comma.

Without the comma in the first sentence, we’re saying we’re going to eat Grandma! But with the comma, it’s clear that I’m inviting Grandma to eat with me. Punctuation really can save lives! Commas and other punctuation marks help us separate ideas and clarify meaning in written texts. Of course, context will often help us out in these situations, but it’s also important to learn some basic English punctuation rules to help improve your written communication.

It’s true that we don’t always spend much time on punctuation when we’re learning a new language. Yet whether it be for a report, email, social media post or something else, punctuation can help us communicate our ideas clearly. Here, you’ll find simple rules for six common punctuation marks that will help you improve your English writing.

Before we get started, a quick note about English punctuation and spacing. You’ll notice in the examples below that there aren’t any spaces before the punctuation marks. That’s because in English, spaces only go after punctuation marks, not before them (which is different than, say, spacing in French).

Some Simple Rules For English Punctuation

1. Period (North American English) or full stop (British English): .

Used to mark the end of a complete sentence.

Example: I would like to come visit you at the end of next year.

Did you know? The word “dot”’ is used instead of “period” when saying an email address or website out loud. For example, www “dot” babbel “dot” com.

2. Question mark: ?

Used at the end of a question.

Example: Do you like it?

3. Exclamation mark: !

Used at the end of a sentence to show excitement or enthusiasm.

Example: Thank you for the gift. I love it!

4. Comma: ,

We know commas can be complex! So here, we’ve compiled four common uses for you. Let’s dive in! Use a comma…

to separate items in a list. When a list has three or more items, the last comma before the “and” or “or” — sometimes called the Oxford comma or the serial comma — is optional (though some people have very strong opinions about it).

I need to buy tomatoes, onions, and lettuce.
I need to buy tomatoes, onions and lettuce.

to join two sentences with “and,” “so,” “but,” or any coordinating conjunction. (You might have learned the acronym FANBOYS to remember the coordinating conjunctions “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” “so.”)

I need to go grocery shopping, but I won’t have time after work.
We’re visiting my brother, and I’m so excited!

when starting sentences with “if,” “because,” or “when.” These words often introduce dependent clauses, which require a comma when used at the beginning of a sentence

Because I have an appointment, I plan to leave work at 3 p.m.
If you travel to the US, you must visit New York City!

Note! If you switch the order of the clauses, you don’t need a comma:

I plan to leave work at 3 p.m. because I have an appointment.
You must visit New York City if you travel to the United States.

when addressing someone or starting a sentence with “yes” or “no.”

Let’s eat, Grandma!
Grandma, let’s eat!

Silvia, are you free tomorrow?
Yes, I’m free on Saturday.

Note! In texting or other informal writing, these commas are often left out.

BONUS! Emails, letters or messages include commas in the following ways:

Hi Thomas,

I am writing to confirm our meeting on Monday, June 24, 2022.


5. Semicolon: ;

Used between two complete sentences to show they are closely related. Cannot be replaced with a comma, but can be replaced with a period. It can also be used when making a list, particularly if the items in the list have internal punctuation.

I love my dog; she’s so sweet.
I’ve been to Detroit, Michigan; Savannah, Georgia; and Portland, Oregon.

6. Colon: :

Can be used to introduce lists.

Example: I need to choose where I want to travel: New York, California, or Florida.

English punctuation can be very tricky, especially commas. Even native speakers sometimes need to look up the rules, so don’t worry! The rules in this article give you a general overview of some common usages. As you continue your language-learning journey, you will learn more about punctuation and all the different ways it can help you express yourself more clearly. Try to pay attention to the punctuation that is used throughout your Babbel lessons and in texts you encounter in your daily life. This will raise your awareness and help you remember the patterns. Happy learning!

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