WRITING: Understanding punctuation in English

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Punctuation in IELTS writingOne of the categories the examiner will be looking for when assessing your writing is your accuracy with punctuation, and the correct use of more accurate punctuation like semi colons and colons can make the difference between a band 6.0 or higher.
Below you will find a table showing the different punctuation symbols (also called punctuation marks), as well as a description of how they are and some example sentences.
Good punctuation is essential to make your writing clear and to be able to combine ideas into single sentences.
You should also look at the lessons on sentence fragments, as well as the lessons on simple, complex and compound sentences.
When you’ve finished reading this page, take a look at the Punctuation exercises

Full stop

Question mark

Exclamation mark





Quotation marks

‘ ‘ / ” “

Full stop

A full stop is used to show the reader that the sentence is finished.
Every sentence ends with a full stop.
This is one of the first examples of punctuation.

Question mark

A question mark does the same job as a full stop, but tells the reader that the sentence is not a statement but a question that generally needs an answer from the reader.
Do you understand how to use a question mark?
How many people live in your house?

Exclamation mark

An exclamation mark (or exclamation point) also does the same job as a full stop, but it shows surprise or strong feelings, or commands someone to do something. Note that we have included this on the page, but exclamation marks should NOT be used in formal IELTS writing.
Sit down! (a command)
I will never forgive you! (strong feelings)
Ahh! You scared me! (surprise)


There are two common uses for an apostrophe. Note that although we have included the apostrophe here, it is very rarely used in formal academic writing- it is important to write the complete words for IELTS (has not instead of hasn’t, for example).
1. to show that we have missed letters from a word when using a contracted form.
do not = don’t
who is = who’s
2. To show a possession – that something belongs to someone
The boy’s car
John’s hat
the children’s dinner


A comma is normally used in the same place we would take a short pause if we were speaking. Below are common places commas are used.
1. When listing items, commas are used except between the second to last and last items.
His new house was big, modern and expensive.
Africa, Asia, North America and South America are all continents.
2. When we add information to a sentence that is not absolutely necessary for the grammar of the sentence.
“My neighbour, who comes from London, is very friendly.” (the sentence would be grammatically accurate if it said ‘My neighbour is very friendly’, therefore the additional information is in commas).
3. Between large numbers (separating groups of three numbers).
They won £26,500 on the lottery!
There are nearly 5,000,000 people living in New Zealand.
NOTE: There normally needs to be at least 5 numbers for a comma
4,500 4500


1. Semi colons can be used to combine two sentences when there is a relationship between them. The relationship might not be immediately clear.
NOTE: the colon can also be used to combine sentences when the second sentence offers an explanation to the first. See ‘Colons’ for more.
John lives in Hamilton; David lives in Auckland.
The government have promised to reduce unemployment; they are promoting job training at the moment.
The government have promised to reduce unemployment; but so far nothing has changed
This is wrong because the two sentences have already been joined by ‘but’
2. Semi-colons can also be used to separate items in a list (much like a comma) when there is punctuation in the list already.
(comma list) We need bread, milk, cheese and butter.
(semi colon list) The main cities affected are Auckland, New Zealand; London, England; and Berlin, Germany.


1. Colons can be used to introduce a list.
The company needs to meet the following targets: increased sales, wider product base, better transportation network.
The government should offer the following: more jobs, better health care and improved standards of education
2. Colons can also be used to offer an explanation.
The skiing trip was cancelled: there was no snow.
He may have to go to prison: he was arrested for the third time.
Note: when using the colon, the sentence before the colon must be complete.
Students must have: pens, paper, books and a uniform. ‘Students must have’ is NOT a complete (independent) sentence.
Students must have certain items to attend school: pens, paper, books and a uniform. ‘Students must have certain items to attend school’ is a complete (independent) sentence.

Quotation marks

There are two types of quotation mark – the speech mark and the inverted comma.
The speech mark (or double quotation marks) are used to quote direct speech:
His last words were “I’ll be back”.
The inverted comma is used around words when we are using them in special ways (such as using them as titles or when we give them special meaning).
He wrote a book called ‘Chart Throb’.
Do you know how to spell the word ‘accommodation’?
Now try the punctuation exercises lesson!

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