By Cath McLellan

31 Jan 2020 - 15:11

Punctuation: how to use it correctly in English

When we are speaking, we naturally pause, add emphasis to what we are saying and (hopefully) organise our ideas so that the person listening is able to follow what we are saying without too much difficulty. When we are writing, this is perhaps less intuitive, and one way we give shape to our written language is through punctuation. Consider the difference between:

  • Let's eat, Clare
    Vamos comer, Clare.
  • Let's eat Clare
    Vamos comer a Clare.

In one of those sentences something is very wrong, and Clare is not going to be very happy. Even a small difference in punctuation can lead to big differences in meaning. As texting and digital texts become more prevalent, punctuation is often misused in more formal writing. Knowing how to use punctuation correctly makes texts easier to understand, gives them a professional edge and of course, is essential in formal assessment of language.

What are the rules?

So, what are the rules about punctuation? Here is a quick run-down on the most commonly used signs.

Full stops (.) "ponto"

The most common use of the full stop is at the end of a sentence when we have finished a complete idea.

  • Johnny grew up in Birmingham in the 1980s.
    Johnny cresceu em Birmingham nos anos oitenta.

We also use full stops for abbreviations (in lower case) - for example, when talking about time.

  • "See you at 3 p.m. tomorrow, Dave."
    Vemo-nos amanhã às três da tarde, Dave.

(note that in direct speech, the full stop comes before the speech marks)

Comma (,) "vírgula"

Some people think of the comma as taking a breath, because it acts as a pause in a sentence. The most common uses are:

To separate clauses (a 'part' of a sentence containing a subject and verb), especially when they are joined by and, but, so or, nor, yet or for.

  • I hadn't finished my homework, but I decided to go out anyway
    Não tinha terminado os trabalhos de casa, mas decidi sair na mesma.
  • Sally was feeling upset, and Romesh was not helping
    A Sally estava chateada, e o Romesh não estava a ajudar.

We also use commas to separate clauses that add extra information to a sentence.

For example:

  • On Tuesday we are going to an Indian restaurant.
    Na terça-feira vamos a um restaurante indiano.
  • On Tuesday, which is my birthday, we are going to an Indian restaurant.
    Na terça-feira, que é o meu dia de anos, vamos a um restaurante indiano.

Note: "which is my birthday" is extra information here, because the sentence makes sense without it.

If we are listing more than two items, we use a comma to separate them.

  • For dinner last night I had soup, risotto, salad, and a chocolate brownie
    Ontem o meu jantar foi sopa, risotto, salada e um brownie de chocolate.

Commas also follow introductory phrases, like this:

  • Grabbing her hat, Valerie rushed out of the room.
    Agarrando o seu chapéu, Valerie saiu a correr da sala.

We also use commas before a name when we address someone. Remember the example from the beginning of the blog?

  • Let's eat, Clare.
    Vamos comer, Clare.

If in doubt about commas, try using one and then omitting it. Does the meaning of your sentence change? Does it make your writing easier to read?

Semi-colon (;) "ponto-e-vírgula"

The semicolon is like the comma's big brother. You can use it when you want to join two separate (independent) clauses or statements that are related to each other, but there is no conjunction.

  • I clean my teeth everyday; I don't want to end up with tooth decay
    Lavo os dentes todos os dias; não quero ganhar cáries.

You could also use a comma here and a conjunction:

  • I clean my teeth everyday, because I don't want to end up with tooth decay
    Lavo os dentes todos os dias, porque não quero ganhar cáries.

They can also be used in lists where commas are already being used, to separate different items (sort of like a 'super comma'):

  • Dancing is great because it is gets us moving, which is good for our health; it teaches us coordination, balance and rhythm; it also encourages self expression, which can build confidence.
    Dançar é fantástico porque nos obriga a mexer, o que é bom para a nossa saúde; ensina-nos a ter coordenação, equilíbrio e ritmo; também permite que nos expressemos, o que pode aumentar a nossa autoestima.

Colon (:) "dois pontos"

We use colons to introduce lists:

  • For your English class, you will need: a coursebook, a pen, a notebook, and a good teacher.
    Para a aula de inglês vais precisar de: um manual, uma caneta, um caderno e um bom professor. 

We also use it to connect two independent clauses, when the second clause expands, explains or adds extra information to the first:

  • She had always loved grammar: she owned multiple dictionaries and had verb lists all over the walls of her study.
    Ela sempre gostou de gramática: tinha diversos dicionários e listas de verbos em todas as paredes do seu escritório.

Colons can also be used for emphasis:

  • There was one thing that interested her more than anything: punctuation.
    Havia algo que lhe interessava mais do que qualquer outra coisa: a pontuação.

Apostrophe (') "apóstrofe"

People often make mistakes with apostrophes, but the rules here are quite clear. Apostrophes are used for contractions:

  • She's the smartest girl in the school (She's = She is).
    É a rapariga mais inteligente do colégio
  • We'll be there at 7 p.m. (We'll = We will).
    Estaremos aí às 19h

  • Don't you think summer's better than winter? (Don't = Do not / summer's = summer is).
    Não achas que o verão é melhor do que o inverno? 

The other main use of apostrophes is to show possession.

  • This is Dan's pencil case
    Este é o estojo do Dan.
  • Leroy's jacket is brown
    O blusão do Leroy é castanho.

This can get a bit tricky if the noun is already plural -in that case if the noun ends with 's', the apostrophe comes after it. If the noun doesn't end in an 's', then you add 's.

  • These are the twins' parents. 
    Estes são os pais dos gémeos.
  • This is the Jones' family home
    Esta é a casa da família Jones.
  • The children's clothes are on the second floor.
    A roupa para crianças está no segundo andar.

"Question mark" and "exclamation mark (? ! ) "ponto de exclamação e de interrogação"

Question marks always come at the end of questions in English, unless it is an indirect question that doesn't begin with a question form.

  • Direct question:
    Where is the bank?
    Onde fica o banco?
  • Indirect question with question form:
    Would you mind telling me where the bank is?
    Importa-se de me dizer onde fica o banco?
  • Indirect question:
    I'd like to know where the bank is.
    Gostaria de saber onde fica o banco.

Be careful with exclamation marks, as they tend to be very overused, particularly on social media where you will often see things like 'OMG!!! THAT IS AWESOME!!!'. In any formal writing, exclamation marks should be used for one thing only: exclamations. Often this will be in direct speech.

  • ''Hey!'' John shouted. "I'm here!''
    "Hei!", exclamou o John. "Estou aqui!"

Exclamation marks in brackets are also often used to denote sarcasm or irony on the part of the writer:

  • We are all really looking forward to the meeting next week (!)
    Estamos todos desejosos que chegue a reunião da semana que vêm
    [in Portuguese, this sense is often conveyed by the use of certain words in italics).

When in doubt, it's probably best not to use exclamation marks (unless you are very excited about something on social media).

Exceptions and variations

There are some differences between American and British punctuation. For example, it is usual to use full stops after abbreviations like Mr., Mrs. and Dr. in American English. In British English this is not the case.

When using possessive apostrophes for singular nouns that end in 's' there are two acceptable forms:

Esta é a cadeira do Chris.

  • This is Chris' chair.
  • This is Chris's chair.

Erros frequentes

What common mistakes do Portuguese students make?

Overuse of apostrophes - don't use them for plurals:

  • Existem três marcadores castanhos.
    There are three brown pen's. ✗
    There are three brown pens. ✓

Remember to use apostrophes for possessives:

  • Este fim de semana vou a casa dos meus avós.
    This weekend I'm going to the house of my grandparents. ✗
    This weekend I'm going to my grandparents' house. ✓

Don't use ellipsis points (...) unless it is to show something is missing from a quotation. Instead, use etc. "etc":

  • Gosto de ir à praia, ouvir música, sair com os meus amigos … 
    I like going to the beach, listening to music, meeting with friends.....✗
    I like going to the beach, listening to music, meeting with friends, etc.✓ 

The difference between its (possessive) and it's (contraction of it is)

  • Adoro Barcelona pela sua arquitetura.
    I love Barcelona for it's architecture. ✗
    I love Barcelona for its architecture. ✓

Are there any famous examples:

  • Oxford comma - this is an unlikely pop song by Vampire Weekend about a type of comma that is sometimes used in lists - some people accept it and others don't - who really cares?
  • Help! The Beatles were desperately asking for help in this song from 1965
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? This George Clooney film asked a direct question in old English - meaning, Where are you?
  • Ocean's 11 - referring to the 11 that belong to Ocean

 Mini quiz

Each of these sentences contains a mistake with punctuation. Can you correct it?

  1. Last night for dinner I had soup pasta, salad and chocolate cake.
  2. Joe was tired but didn't go to bed early.
  3. I'd love a house with a pool, a garden, a terrace ...
  4. I'd like to know what time the train leaves?
  5. There was only one thing she wanted; money.
  6. Its the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Answers (a long way) below








  1. Last night for dinner I had soup, pasta, salad and chocolate cake.
  2. Joe was tired, but didn't go to bed early.
  3. I'd love a house with a pool, a garden, a terrace, etc.
  4. I'd like to know what time the train leaves.
  5. There was only one thing she wanted: money.
  6. It's the best thing that has ever happened to me.