To indicate possession

  • use ’s after singular nouns, plural nouns which do not end in s and indefinite pronouns

✓ Frank’s book
✓ anybody’s guess
✓ The children’s play area is next to the men’s toilet.

  • use just ’ after plural nouns ending in s

✓ Strong tea is sometimes called builders’ tea.

  • if a name already ends in s or z and would be difficult to pronounce if ’s is added to the end, consider rearranging the sentence to avoid the difficulty

✓ Jesus’s methods were unpopular with the ruling classes / the methods of Jesus were…

  • in compound nouns and where multiple nouns are linked to make one concept, use the apostrophe at the end of the final part (and match it to that noun)

✓ the Archbishop of Canterbury’s hat
✓ my mother-in-law’s dog
✓ his step-brothers’ cars
✓ Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun

  • do not use an apostrophe in ‘its’ with the meaning ‘belonging to it’ (this is analogous with his/hers/theirs)

✓ The cat has been out in the rain and its paws are muddy.
✘ The cat has been out in the rain and it’s tail is wet.

  • some place names have an apostrophe and some don’t – this can’t be predicted and must be checked

✓ All Souls College
✓ Earls Court
✓ St Peter’s College
✓ Land’s End
✓ University of St Andrews

  • some street names have an apostrophe (usually linked to saints’ names from nearby churches); these are also idiosyncratic

✓ There is a famous pub on St Giles’.
✘ St Giles’s splits into Woodstock and Banbury Roads.
✓ Christ Church is on St Aldate’s.
✓ St Michael’s Street is a through road for bicycles.

  • use apostrophes with noun phrases denoting periods of time (use an apostophe if you can replace the apostrophe with ‘of’)

✓ He took a week’s holiday.
✓ You must give three months’ notice.

  • but do not use an apostrophe in adjectival phrases

✓ She was eight months pregnant when she went into labour.

To indicate that letters have been omitted (contractions)

  • use an apostrophe in the position the omitted letters would have occupied, not where the space was between the original words

✓ I don’t like cheese [=do not]
✘ I do’nt like cheese [≠do-not]
✓ He wouldn’t do that.

  • do not use an apostrophe before contractions accepted as words in their own right

✓He’s on the phone.
✓He had swine flu.
✘There’s no vaccine for all types of ‘flu.

  • do not use an apostrophe to make a plural, even with a word/phrase that is not usually written in the plural or which appears clunky. All of the following examples take an s as normal in English to make their plurals

✘ Three video’s for a tenner.
✘ I trust all the MP’s.
✘ Clothes were colourful in the 1970’s.
✘ CD’s will soon be obsolete.
✘ This is a list of do’s and don’t’s.

  • to clarify something which will look odd if an s is added, consider italicising it or placing it in single quotation marks

✓ subtract all the xs from the ys
✓ dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s


Round brackets (parentheses, like these)

  • use in place of a pair of dashes or commas around a non-defining phrase

✓ The library (which was built in the seventeenth century) needs to be repaired.
✓It was (as far as I could tell) the only example of its kind.

  • use to add extra information, such as a translation, dates, an explanation or a definition

✓Magdalen College (founded in 1458) has a herd of deer.
✓The tactic of Blitzkrieg (which means ‘lightning war’ in German) was used in the invasion of Poland in 1939.
✓Preheat the oven to 350⁰F (180⁰C).

Square brackets [like these]

  • use to enclose comments, corrections, references or translations made by a subsequent author or editor

✓ An article referring to the restrictions placed by some airlines on the appearance of female  cabin crew stated that even footwear was proscribed [sic].
✓ I have been responsible in the real sense, that I have had the blame for everything that has gone wrong. [Laughter and cheers.]
✓ This was quoted by Brown [1940, Chicago].

Angle brackets <like these> and curly brackets {or braces, like these}

These are used for technical purposes – if you don’t know how to use them, don’t use them.

Other punctuation and brackets

  • include full stops/exclamation marks/question marks/quotation marks inside a bracket only if the complete sentence/quote is in brackets; otherwise, punctuate outside the bracket

✓ The last bus today is at 4.45 (which is earlier than usual).
✓ The last bus today is at 4.45. (That’s earlier than usual.)


Bullet points

  • don’t punctuate the end of bullet points which are a list of items

✓ 2012 concert performers:

● Slade
● The Smiths
● Metallica
● The Spice Girls

  • if the bullet points form a complete sentence with preceding text, add a full stop to the end of the last point

✓ We are holding a concert in 2012, at which the following acts will perform:

● Slade
● The Smiths
● Metallica
● The Spice Girls.

  • if the text inside the bullet point is a complete sentence in its own right, add a semicolon to the end of each point, ‘or’ or ‘and’ (depending on the sense of your sentence) to the end of the penultimate point, and a full stop to the end of the last one

✓ The following will be considered good reasons for missing the final meeting of the year:

● there was a postal strike. This only applies if the postal strike took place before the date and the meeting and if you have not signed up for email alerts;
● you are absent as a result of illness;
● you are unable to attend because of a problem with public transport (proof of this will be required);
● there is something more interesting happening elsewhere which you would rather attend; or
● you have obtained a ticket to see the Spice Girls in concert.


Colon and semicolon

  • use a colon to introduce a subclause which follows logically from the text before it, is not a new concept and depends logically on the preceding main clause

✓ When I was young, I went on two holidays: to the Lake District and to Cornwall.
✓ A new drink was introduced to Britain: tea.

  • do not use a colon if the two parts of the sentence are not logically connected

✘ I used to be thin: I must lose weight.
✓ I would like to be thin: I must lose weight.
✘ We were in trouble this time: we’d never been in trouble before.
✓ We were in trouble this time: the lid had come right off.
✓ There are two parts to this sentence: the first part, which precedes the colon, and the second part, which doesn’t.

  • use a semicolon to link two related parts of a sentence, neither of which depends logically on the other and each of which could stand alone as a grammatically complete sentence

✓ The best job is the one you enjoy; the worst job is the one you hate.
✓ It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

  • use semicolons in place of commas in a complicated list or sentence if it will improve clarity, particularly if there are already commas inside list items

✓ We plan to review the quality of the research of the department, including its participation in interdepartmental, interdivisional and interdisciplinary activities; its research profile and strategy; and future challenges and opportunities.
✓ I visited the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Pencil Museum, Keswick.



  • use a pair of commas to surround a non-defining clause (which adds descriptive information but which can be removed without losing the meaning of the sentence) – only ‘which’ or ‘who’ can be used in this type of clause

✓ The library, which was built in the seventeenth century, needs to be repaired.
✓ The man, who climbed the tower without a safety harness, died of old age.

  • do not use commas to surround a defining clause (which cannot be removed without losing the meaning of the sentence) – either ‘that’ or ‘which’ can be used in this type of clause

✓ The library which was built in the seventeenth century needs repairs [but the library which was built in the eighteenth century does not].
✓ The man that climbed the tower without a safety harness died of old age [but the other man died in a different way].
✓ He asked his friend Sam to be his second [not any of his other friends]

  • use commas to surround a non-defining word or phrase (which adds information but could be omitted without changing the sense of the sentence), and use a single comma if the non-defining word/phrase is at the start of the sentence

✓ Shakespeare, the prolific playwright, might not have existed.
✓ A prolific playwright, Shakespeare might not have existed.
✓ He asked Sam, his friend, to be his second [not the Sam who is his barber].
✓ The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is an alumnus of Brasenose.

  • do not use a comma where a non-defining clause is used at the start of a sentence

✓ The prolific playwright Shakespeare might not have existed.
✘ The prolific playwright, Shakespeare might not have existed.
✓ His friend Sam was his second.
✘ His friend, Sam was his second.

  • use a comma after an introductory adverb, adverbial phrase or subordinate clause; or use a pair of commas surrounding it if it is in the middle of a sentence

✓ However, it was too late for that.
✓ It was, however, too late for that.
✓ With his possessions in a bundle, Dick Whittington walked to London.
✓ Dick Whittington, with his possessions in a bundle, walked to London.

  • do not use a comma after a time-based adverbial phrase

✓ After playing tennis all day she was tired.
✓ Whenever she went to the cinema she ate popcorn.
✓ In 2010 the most popular game among children was hopscotch.

  • use a comma between multiple qualitative adjectives (those which can be used in the comparative/superlative or modified with ‘very’, ‘quite’ etc)

✓ He was a big, fat, sweaty man with soft, wet hands.

  • do not use a comma between multiple classifying adjectives: absolutes which either are or are not, such as ‘unique’, ‘English’, ‘black’ etc (although note that stylistically these can be modified)

✓ It was an edible German mushroom.
✓ The eighteenth-century sandstone tower is lit up at night.

  • do not use a comma between classifying and qualitative adjectives

✓ It was a large German mushroom with hard black edges.
✓ It was a large, squishy German mushroom with hard, frilly black edges.

  • use a comma between items in a list

✓ I ate fish, bread, ice cream and spaghetti.
✓ I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

  • note that there is generally no comma between the penultimate item and ‘and’/‘or’, unless required to prevent ambiguity – this is sometimes referred to as the ‘Oxford comma’.

✘ He took French, Spanish, and Maths A-levels.
✓ I ate fish and chips, bread and jam, and ice cream.
✓ We studied George III, William and Mary, and Henry XIII.
✘ She left her money to her parents, Mother Theresa and the pope.


Dashes and hyphens (—, –, -)

m-dash (—)

  • do not use; use an n-dash instead

n-dash (–)

  • use in a pair in place of round brackets or commas, surrounded by spaces

✓ It was – as far as I could tell – the only example of its kind.
✓ The library – which was built in the seventeenth century – needs to be repaired.

  • use singly to link two parts of a sentence, in place of a colon

✓ The bus was late today – we nearly missed the lecture.

  • use to link concepts or ranges of numbers, with no spaces either side

✓ German–Polish non-aggression pact
✓ The salary is £25,000–£30,000.
✓ Radio 1 is aimed at the 18–25 age bracket.

  • use between names of joint authors/creators/performers etc to distinguish from hyphenated names of a single person

✓ Lennon–McCartney compositions
✓ Superman–Batman crossover comics

Hyphen – when to use a hyphen?

  • in an adjectival phrase before a noun

✓ the up-to-date list
✓ the value of a first-class degree is indisputable
✓ a hot-air balloon
✓ ‘Rethinking provincialism in mid-nineteenth-century narrative fiction: Villette from our village’

  • in an adjectival phrase including a verb participle

✓ the jumper was tight-fitting

  • with prefixes only if required to avoid confusion/mispronunciation, such as where prefixes themselves or letters are repeated

✓ predynastic Egypt
✓ Gifts of pre-eminent objects and works of art to the nation
✓ The animals are re-released into the wild when recovered.
✓ A protein precursor can also be called a pro-protein.
✓ Procapitalists and anticapitalists clashed in the streets.
✓ The email address for the webmaster can be found on the website.

  • before a proper name, number or date

✓ anti-Thatcherism
✓ pre-2000 politics

  • in numbers which are spelt out

✓ Twenty-seven is the most popular ‘random’ number.
✓ The Thirty-Nine Steps

  • in compass points

✓ They’re heading south-east.
✓ nor’-nor’-east

When not to use a hyphen?

  • in noun phrases

✓ Labour Party conference
✘ black-box recorder

  • to make a new compound noun – if it is a recognisable concept, make it one word; if it isn’t, use two words

✓ Websites are made up of webpages
✓ Send me an email when you’re ready to proceed.
✘ Send me an e-mail.

  • in an adjectival phrase following a noun

✓ His marks just scraped into the first class.

  • in an adjectival phrase before a noun where the first element is an adverb ending in -ly (but any other adverbs do take a hyphen)

✓ She had a finely tuned ear for off-key music.
✓ XML documents must be well-formed texts.
✘ She was a highly-respected tutor.
✓ She was a well-respected tutor.


Ellipsis (…)


  • use an ellipsis to show that some text is missing, usually from a quotation – do not surround it with spaces

✓ …we shall fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender…
✓ It is a truth universally acknowledged…

  • there is no need to add square brackets around an ellipsis

✘ […]we shall fight on the beaches[…]

  • use an ellipsis to indicate a pause for comic or other effect – follow the ellipsis with a space in this case, as it stands in place of a comma

✓ You don’t have to be mad to work here… but it helps!

  • use an ellipsis followed by a space to indicate a trailing off in speech or thought

✓ We could do that… or maybe…


Full stop, exclamation mark and question mark


  • use one – but only one – of these at the end of every sentence

✓ What time did you leave last night?
✓ We went home at 5 o’clock.
✓ Go home now!

  • do not use a full stop in titles, even if they make a sentence, but if a title ends with an exclamation mark or question mark, include it

✓ All’s Well that Ends Well is my favourite play.
✓ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ was a hit for the Shirelles.
✓ ‘Help!’ was covered by Bananarama in 1989.

  • do not use a full stop if it will be followed, or preceded, by an ellipsis

✘ Behind him stood a figure. …It was ghostly grey.

  • if required, use a question mark after an ellipsis as a separate item of punctuation

✓ Are you…?
✓ Did he say that…?

  • use a full stop, not a question mark, at the end of a reported question – only use a question mark for a direct question (whether in quotation marks or not)

✓ He asked if I wanted to go home that morning.
✓ ‘Do you want to go home this morning?’ he asked.
✘ He asked if I wanted to go home?

  • use a full stop, not an exclamation mark, at the end of a reported imperative

✓ Wait for me!
✓ He asked me to wait for him.
✘ He asked me to wait for him!


Quotation marks


  • use single quotation marks for direct speech or a quote, and double quotation marks for direct speech or a quote within that

✓ ‘I have never been to Norway,’ he said, ‘but I have heard it described as “the Wales of the North”.’
use no quotation marks if the quote is displayed (ie not in line with the rest of the text)
✓ as I noted then,
Those of us who toil in the Groves of
Academe know full well that our
research helps inform our teaching…

  • use single quotation marks and roman (not italic) type for titles that are not whole publications: eg short poems, short stories, songs, chapters in books, articles in periodicals

✓ I, Robot contains nine short stories, of which ‘Little Lost Robot’ is my favourite.
✓ The number-one single in the hit parade this week is ‘Read All About It’ by Professor Green.

  • include punctuation which belongs to the quote inside the quotation marks, and a closing full stop/question mark/exclamation mark if the quote is a complete sentence
  • place any punctuation which does not belong to the quote outside the quotation marks (except closing punctuation as above)

✓ ‘Out,’ said Macbeth, ‘out, brief candle!’
✓ ‘Out,’ said Lady Macbeth, ‘damn’d spot!’
✓ ‘You’re engaged to Florence?’ I yipped, looking at him with a wild surmise.
✓ ‘Tomorrow!’ she said, ‘Tomorrow! I love you, tomorrow!’
✘ ‘The kitchen,’ he said ‘is the heart of the home’.
✓ ‘The kitchen’, he said, ‘is the heart of the home.’

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