Pesky punctuation and how to perfect it!

Posted in: academic skills, academic writing, essay-writing

24 September is Punctuation Day, an opportunity to recognise the importance of all those little marks and symbols in writing that we learnt about at school. This blog recaps the rules on some common forms of punctuation so you can produce work of a high academic and professional standard.

Why is punctuation important?

Using correct, accurate punctuation in your formal writing matters because it:

  1. Tells your reader that you’re a skilled and articulate thinker and writer.
  2. Helps your reader understand your meaning, especially in more complex sentences.
  3. Demonstrates that you care about your work.

At university, the marking criteria of most assignments will assess the accurate use of grammar, punctuation and spelling. Persistent errors will reduce the credibility of your work and your tutor will mark you down as a result.

Beyond uni, in today’s competitive job market, your CV probably won’t even make it through the first sift if your grammar, punctuation and spelling is sloppy.

If you’re not sure about some of the terms used in the guide below, please refer to the Glossary at the end.

Commas (,)

Commas are used to separate ideas or items.

Use commas:

  • To show items in a list or series.

Example: The three main gases contributing to climate change are methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Note, you don’t usually need to include a comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’ at the end of the list (as in the example above), but it can aid clarity when the items are made up of two or more words or short phrases.

Example: The research involved analysis of assignment types, marking criteria, samples of students’ work, and feedback.

  • To separate an initial dependent clause from the independent clause.

Example: If there are changes in the way education is delivered, the profile of a typical student is likely the change.

However, a comma isn’t necessary if your independent clause comes first.

Example: The profile of a typical student is likely to change if there are changes in the way education is delivered.

  • To separate two independent clauses when a conjunction is used.

Example: There are likely to be changes in the way education is delivered, and this will lead to a change in the profile of a typical student.

  • To show that a relative clause is providing extra description that is not essential for the reader.

Example: The methods used in this study were qualitative methods, which meant the responses were generally unstructured. (The relative clause here gives useful but not ‘identifying’ information).

  • To provide extra descriptive information or explanation separated from the rest of the sentence.

Example: The funding for this research, initially problematic, has now been procured.

  • To separate an introductory phrase containing a verb from the rest of the sentence.

Example: To succeed in this project, the company needs to involve all stakeholders.

  • After words that link the meaning between two sentences.

Example: There is a general belief that natural foodstuffs are healthier than manufactured foods. However, some natural chemicals are more harmful than some synthetic chemicals, and it is important that this information is conveyed clearly.

Top tip for commas:
Try reading your work aloud. Where do you naturally pause? Is a comma needed here?

Semi-colons (;)

Semi-colons are used to separate two things which may be independent clauses or complex items in a list. A capital letter is not used after a semi-colon.

Use semi-colons:

  • To separate two independent clauses with related content, as an alternative to conjunctions such as and, because, as, or a full stop.

Example: Correct use of punctuation isn’t easy; misuse can cause communication problems.

  • To separate one clause from the next one when using linking words such as however, therefore, thus, nevertheless etc. A full stop could be used here too.

Example: The company assets have been frozen; therefore, no further payments can be made.

  • Before expressions such as for example (e.g.), as, that is (i.e.), namely, used in a complete clause, or before a list of examples.

Example: In the workplace you are constantly monitored in different ways; for example, through observation, meetings, and output assessment.

  • To separate complex items in a list.

Example: At university you will be assessed in different ways: formally through essays and presentations; informally through group work, seminars and workshops; and most formally of all, through exams.

For single words in a list, a comma is used instead.

Example: At university you are assessed in different ways: through essays, presentations, group work and exams.

Top tip for semi-colons:
The semi-colon is often misused and overused. Use them sparingly. If you’re not sure, it’s best to choose a different form of punctuation.

Colons (:)

Colons join two sections of information together where the first part is introducing the second part.

Use colons:

  • To introduce a list of items.

Example: At university you are assessed in different ways: through essays, presentations, group work and exams.

  • To introduce a direct quotation.

Example: As Penrose notes: ‘Left to their own desires and devices, nation-states will continue to pursue their own self-interests at the cost of enforcing international law’ (Penrose, 2000, p. 371).

  • Although infrequently used, to join two parts of a sentence when the second part is providing more information about the first.

Example: Plagiarism is an increasingly discussed issue: there is much debate over its exact definition.

Top tip for colons:
You can often test that you have used a colon correctly by replacing it with the word ‘namely’.

Brackets – round () and square []

Brackets are used to separate supplementary or secondary information. Full stops should only be inside brackets when the entire contents inside the brackets is a complete sentence.

Use round brackets:

  • To separate supplementary or clarifying information from the main information.

Example: Stimulants are chemicals that speed up heart rate, and there are different kinds of these chemicals that operate in different ways. (There are also chemicals called depressants which slow down heart rate, but they are not the focus here.)

  • To add an in-text citation.

Example: A person’s identity can change with time and with context (Burke, 2006).

  • To indicate a cross reference.

Example: Table 1 shows the summarised findings (see Appendix A for the raw data).

  • To indicate an abbreviation immediately after the full name has been given so that thereafter, the abbreviation can be used.

Example: Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) is the main transporter of chemical energy within cells. The chemical energy stored in ATP is used to drive processes such as biosynthesis, and locomotion or transportation of molecules across cell membranes.

Use square brackets:

  • To indicate when someone other than the original writer or speaker is inserting a comment or clarification.

Example: They [the French] have a big decision to make about the economy.

  • To indicate with … to show that some of the text has been omitted.

Example: This information cannot be used [] as evidence.

Top tip for brackets:
Dashes (also called 'hyphens') are generally too informal for academic writing, so it's better to replace them with round brackets.

Apostrophes (‘)

Use an apostrophe:

  • To show a possessive relationship. To show singular possessive nouns, place the apostrophe between the noun and the ‘s’. To show plural possessive nouns, place the apostrophe after the ‘s’.

Example (singular noun): This institutions mission statement indicates the principles that underpin the processes.

Example (plural noun): The lecturer commented on the high quality of the students assignments.

Note, the possessive ‘its’ form does not have an apostrophe.

Example: Hosting the Olympics was considered a success, and it is hoped that its legacy will live on for many years.

  • To show a contracted form. Be careful – contractions shouldn’t be used in essays and other formal written texts!

Example: The students havent received feedback on their work yet.

Top tip for apostrophes:
Don't use ‘it’s’ (a contraction for it is or it has) in your formal assignments and writing.

Quotation marks (‘’)

Quotation marks (also called 'speech marks' or 'inverted commas') are important in showing that you're citing another person’s words.

Use quotation marks:

  • To indicate someone else’s words (from written sources).

Example: Smith (2009, p. 89) suggested that society is rotten to the core.

  • To show direct speech (i.e. spoken words).

Example: Tutors often say that grammar, punctuation or spelling mistakes in students’ essays are a lazy way of saying I just don’t care about my writing.

  • To highlight an unusual or controversial term.

Example: People working for large organisations frequently complain of the new Management Speak.

  • To show titles of books, films, articles etc.

Example: Conan Doyle introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet which was published in 1887.

Top tip for quotation marks:
Using quotation marks is really important! Forgetting to include them could lead to accusations of plagiarism.

Avoiding punctuation errors

Finally, to avoid punctuation errors, it's a good idea to:

  • regularly remind yourself about punctuation rules
  • turn on the grammar checker on your computer, but don’t rely on it as it may not spot all errors (e.g. use of apostrophes)
  • ask a friend to check your work – someone else may spot errors that you’ve missed
  • step away from your work for a while and then come back and review it with a fresh pair of eyes.

More help with punctuation

If you need more help with punctuation, the Skills Centre's 10-week General English course will help build your confidence. You can also book an in-person or online appointment for a 1-1 writing tutorial to discuss any aspect of your writing with one of our expert writing tutors.

This blog is based on 'Chapter 5 - Writing with Accuracy' of the 'Academic Skills Handbook' (Sage Publishing) by Academic Skills Course Leaders Diana Hopkins and Tom Reid. The chapter includes more examples and lots of exercises for you to check your understanding of punctuation. Copies are available from the University of Bath Library or from Amazon and Sage


  • Clause - a group of words consisting of a subject and a verb. (See 'dependent', 'independent' and 'relative' clauses below).
  • Conjunction – words like 'and', 'but', 'while', or 'although' that connect words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence.
  • Dependent/subordinate clause – a clause that can’t exist alone as a complete sentence because it doesn’t express a complete thought. It depends on an independent clause to make sense.
  • Independent/main clause - a clause that can stand alone as a sentence as it expresses a complete thought.
  • Relative clause - a multi-word adjective that includes a subject and a verb.

Posted in: academic skills, academic writing, essay-writing


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