The marks that make up punctuation – commas, full stops, colons and semicolons, and so on – all help to show the reader how to read a piece of text. Putting a comma in the wrong place can lead to misunderstandings, which is the last thing you want in academic writing.

If punctuation isn’t your thing, have a read of Lynne Truss’ magnificent book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It could change your mind.

Full stop

This is also referred to as a ‘period’ in American English. The full stop is used to indicate that a sentence has finished.

If you are not sure whether you have reached the end of a sentence, ask yourself if it conveys meaning. Can your sentence stand by itself and make sense? If not, you may need to check up on what makes a sentence.

Full stops also allow the reader time to take a breath. If you run out of air whilst reading, there’s a chance the sentence is too long!

Full stops for abbreviations

The only other use for this stoic little dot is to indicate an abbreviation, such as ‘etc.’ (short for et cetera), or to mark the initials of a person (A. A. Milne).

The full stop is also used to denote an initialism (U.S.A.) or an acronym (L.A.S.E.R.). However, we don’t typically do this in Australian English. If you’re not ending a sentence, using an abbreviation or someone’s initial, then the full stop isn’t the punctuation mark for you.


A comma is used to make a distinction between parts of a sentence.

They are also used to separate items in a list or series. For example, I need to buy tomatoes, lettuce, cheese and eggs. Some writing guides also recommend using a comma before ‘and’ to separate the last two items in a series of three or more. This is known as a serial or Oxford comma. Serial commas can usually be safely omitted, except where they are needed to prevent ambiguity.

Focus on the meaning of your sentence: if inserting a comma changes the meaning of what you want to say, then leave it out.

Oxford comma

In the first image above, it’s clear you had three separate food items for breakfast because the comma is placed after each of their names. By placing a comma only after the word ‘eggs’ in the second example, it appears that you had toast with orange juice, hence the different image.

Just remember that the purpose of punctuation is clarity, so don’t sprinkle them around because you feel you should.


The colon denotes that there is more information to come that relates directly to whatever came immediately before. What follows the colon should elaborate on the first statement. If it does not, then you need to use a different punctuation mark.

One example is in the definition of something –

Game of Thrones: the most sadistic book/television series on the planet.

Another example of this is a list of items –

Bring the following items to the exam: black or blue pens, a calculator, a ruler and your student card.

Occasionally the colon is used to express time or ratio, such as:

  • It is 9:30am
  • Add flour and water at a ratio of 2:1

However, in Australian English, time can also be expressed with a full stop: ‘9.30am’.


Semicolon2The semicolon is possibly the most misused (and underused) punctuation mark. Semicolons have two main uses in academic writing:

  1. To separate two different but related full sentences.
  2. To separate items in a list, where the items themselves contain commas.

Separating two different but related ideas

You can use a semicolon where you have two sentences that are independent clauses. This means they could stand as full sentences on their own. Using a semicolon indicates there is a connection between the ideas in the sentences. You could separate them with a full stop, but linking short sentences that have related ideas improves the connectivity of your writing.

For example, consider these two statements which are related:

There is a lot of misinformation in the media. You should not believe everything you read.

Using a semicolon between the two independent clauses shows your reader that there is a connection between them. Joining the ideas also improves the flow of your writing. For example:

There is a lot of misinformation in the media; you should not believe everything you read.

Without a semicolon, you have a run-on sentence which presents several different ideas:

There is a lot of misinformation in the media you should not believe everything you read.

This sentence is difficult to follow as it does not separate the two ideas. Could a comma be helpful in this instance?

There is a lot of misinformation in the media, you should not believe everything you read.

No. Using a comma here is incorrect, as a comma shows that the subsequent clause is dependent on the previous clause.

One way of fixing this problem is by using a subordinator (although, because, after, when, if, unless, where, how), or a sentence connector (and, furthermore, also, however, similarly, primarily, hence, and thus).

In this case, we could write:

There is a lot of misinformation in the media, hence you should not believe everything you read.

A semicolon can be used to connect two free-standing but connected ideas without using a sentence connector or a subordinator, but either option is grammatically correct.

Frequent use of semicolons can lead to long sentences that are difficult to follow. In many cases, using a full stop to create two stand alone sentences, or using a subordinator or sentence connector, will improve the flow. When in doubt, use a full stop.

Separating items in a list

Commas are usually used to separate items in a list, for example:

I have lectures on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

However, if the items in the list already contain commas, semicolons can be used. For example:

I work out nine times a week: I run on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; lift weights on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; and do Yoga on Tuesdays and Saturdays.


The apostrophe is commonly misunderstood. There are two main uses for the apostrophe, and they are:

  1. To show ownership (possession), and
  2. To show truncation (where letters are missing).

Let’s look at an example.

Please don’t wear Frank’s shirt. It could have been anywhere.

The first apostrophe informs the reader that ‘don’t’ is the shortening and joining of the two words ‘do not’. Here, the apostrophe takes the place of the missing letter.

The second apostrophe tells us that the shirt belongs to Frank.

When not to use the apostrophe

A common error occurs with plural nouns (things), for example:

She ordered pizza’s for her friends.

An apostrophe is not needed in pizza’s as it is neither about ownership nor contraction. Plural nouns do NOT need an apostrophe; the order is for one pizza or several pizzas.

Another common error occurs with the word it’s/its, for example:

I gave the puppy it’s toy.

The word ‘it’s’ with an apostrophe indicates either IT IS or IT HAS. The example above is incorrect because neither option makes sense – the word you need is ‘its’ with no apostrophe.

‘Its’ is a possessive pronoun just like ‘theirs’, ‘yours’, ‘ours’, ‘hers’ and ‘his’. None of those words need an apostrophe, so don’t provoke rage in your lecturer by putting one in.

Warning! Contractions are not suitable in formal academic writing.

Question marks

The title gives this punctuation mark away. The question mark is used to denote a question, and is placed at the end of a sentence instead of a full stop.

Starting a sentence with one of the basic questioning words (who, what, where, when, how, why) usually indicates the need for a question mark at the end of it. Even if the question is rhetorical*. Academic writing uses  question marks sparingly. Generally, it is not necessary to ask a question of your reader in an essay or research report.

*A rhetorical question is a sentence phrased as a question that does not actually require an answer. It is typically used to demonstrate a point, or when the answer is implied. For example, “You didn’t expect this page to have ALL the answers, did you?”

Quotation marks

The two forms of quotation marks (double and single) both perform the same task, but different organisations have a preference for how they are used. In each case, one will be used for quotes, and the other to show quotes within quotes.

In most academic writing and in Australian English, the preference is to use single quotation marks (‘’) for quotes and double quotation marks for quotes within quotes (“”). This means that you generally want to use the single quotes, unless the person you are quoting quotes another person in what they say. It sounds confusing, so look at this example.

Robert said, ‘We all remember the famous words of Winston Churchill: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.’

If you are unsure which quote mark to use, ask your lecturer or tutor for clarification as it can depend on which referencing style you are required to use. This will be an important distinction to make when you are quoting the work of others.

Exclamation mark

An exclamation mark is used to denote strong emotion. They are rarely used in academic writing, simply because personal commentaries or strong emotions are not part of academia. This includes forum posts, where using exclamation marks can indicate shouting or other unacceptable behaviour.

Reserve your exclamation marks for personal interactions like texting or social media.


There are three different kinds of dashes. The shortest dash is the hyphen. This is used to connect words, usually when they need to function as one.

Time for a well-earned study break.

The middle dash is called an ‘en dash’ or ‘en rule’. It has that name because it is the width of the letter ’n’. It is only ever used to express some sort of span, usually in place of the word ‘to’.

My study break will occur from 10:00-12:00.

The longest dash is called an ‘em dash’ or ‘em rule’. No prizes for guessing why it got that name. Yes, it is the width of the letter ‘m’. This is actually the most commonly required dash, and unlike the previous two, which both have very specific jobs, the ‘em dash’ has a range of tasks.

It can be used instead of a colon:

Today I threw out ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ — the worst book I ever read.

It can be used in place of commas or brackets for extra information:

‘Firefly’ — possibly the greatest show ever — was cancelled after one season.

There’s more to the ‘em dash’, but when writing academically, these are likely the only two uses you’ll encounter. These dashes happen automatically on computers; Microsoft Word can usually figure out which dash you meant and replace it accordingly. Nevertheless, it helps to have a rough idea when you proofread, as Microsoft Word can miss some things.

Download our handy helpsheet, Punctuation.