What is Punctuation? - Rules & Signs

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  • 0:03 What Is Punctuation?
  • 0:17 Rules for Commonly…
  • 2:04 More Punctuation Rules
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Mary Firestone
Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

In this lesson, we'll find out what punctuation is. We'll then learn some rules for using the most common punctuation marks as well as review sample sentences utilizing the punctuation rules.

What Is Punctuation?

Punctuation marks are symbols or signs that indicate where pauses, stops, questions, omissions, introductions, and other forms of expression occur in our writing.

Rules for Commonly Used Punctuation

Let's take a look at some rules for the most common punctuation marks in American English:


Use periods ( . ) at the end of sentences to indicate a full stop, like in the sentence:

  • I like your hat.

Use periods to create abbreviations. For example:

  • Mister is abbreviated Mr. - like in Mr. Johnson


Use a comma ( , ) after introductory phrases, in lists to separate three or more items in a series, and as an indicator marking independent and dependent clauses.

In the sentence:

  • Washing a car is hard work, but the reward is well worth it.

the comma is separating clauses. In the sentence:

  • To do a good job, you'll need soap, water, wash cloths, and window cleaner.

the first comma is separating the introductory phrase from the rest of the sentence, while the final three commas are separating the individually listed items.

Use a comma to separate the names of cities and states, and between a date and a year:

  • Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • April 4, 2013

For example, notice the comma between Minneapolis and Minnesota and the comma between the date (April 4) and the year (2013). However, if you are just using the month and the year (like in April 2013), no comma is used.

Question Mark

Use question marks ( ? ) when asking a direct question, a specific question being asked but not for an indirect question, the restatement of a question previously asked. For example:

  • Where are you going?

is a direct question being asked and thus uses a question mark. However, the sentence:

  • He asked me where I was going.

is restating what someone else said and is thus an indirect question, making it a sentence needing a period, not a question mark.

More Punctuation Rules


Use a semicolon ( ; ) to separate independent clauses, to separate items in a series when there's additional punctuation, and when there's a transitional phrase (for example: as a result, even so, in fact) between independent clauses.

In this sentence:

  • Members came from Fargo, North Dakota; Juno, Alaska; Albany, New York; Miami, Florida; and Newport, Rhode Island.

The semicolons are separating a series of items that have additional punctuation. In the sentence:

  • More people are adopting dogs; in fact, the local shelter is empty.

the semicolon is used directly after the first independent clause.

Exclamation Point

Use exclamation points ( ! ) for emphasis, for commands, or to show extreme emotion. For example, the exclamation point is used in the sentence:

  • Stop that right now!

because it is a command. While in the sentence:

  • Wow! That's a great song.

the exclamation point is being used for emphasis.

Single Quotation Mark

Use single quotation marks (' ') to highlight a phrase or word, like in the sentence:

  • He was completely honest, telling us 'the good, the bad, and the ugly.'

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Additional Activities

Punctuation Activities

Add the Correct Punctuation

For this activity, you will add the correct punctuation to the following sentences. Keep in mind that there may be multiple ways in which to correct the sentence.

Fix the following sentences:

  1. Mrs Peterson was my favorite teacher because she always had a positive attitude
  2. I have always wanted to visit Iceland but Ive never had the time.
  3. My parents house is in Missoula Montana
  4. Where did you move after college
  5. My fridge consists of the following juice eggs old milk and shredded cheese
  6. The appointment is from 1030 1130 at the courthouse.
  7. The house is the first one on the left you cant miss it
  8. Watch out for that car
  9. After class I want to go to Jonathans house.
  10. That book a story of love and betrayal is one of my favorites.


  1. Mrs. Peterson was my favorite teacher because she always had a positive attitude.
  2. I have always wanted to visit Iceland, but I've never had the time.
  3. My parents' house is in Missoula, Montana.
  4. Where did you move after college?
  5. My fridge consists of the following: juice, eggs, old milk, and shredded cheese.
  6. The appointment is from 10:30-11:30 at the courthouse.
  7. The house is the first one on the left; you can't miss it.
  8. Watch out for that car!
  9. After class, I want to go to Jonathan's house.
  10. That book -- a story of love and betrayal -- is one of my favorites.

Bonus Activity:

Going over the previous activity, explain why you added each punctuation mark. For example, if you added a comma somewhere, explain why.

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