Understanding Punctuation marks in English

Punctuation marks in English are vital to communicating fluently when writing and reading. They can change the whole meaning of a sentence and, if used incorrectly, can lead to some unfortunate mistakes! So, it’s pretty important you understand their use sooner rather than later.

To aid your punctuation practice, we’ve put together a little guide with some punctuation rules that are often confusing for non-English speakers to get you started. Enjoy!

The Comma

Perhaps the most confusing of all punctuation marks in English and one that even native speakers struggle to get right, the comma is also an important part of English writing. It’s used frequently and can have a big effect on what your sentence means.

Comma’s can be used to separate items in a sequence, like a list. For example, “Judy liked apples, bananas, oranges and pineapples.”

They can also come after a dependant clause which precedes a sentence; “As I’d gone to bed early, I wasn’t tired when I woke up.”

Commas can be used before conjunctions (such as however, but and therefore) that connect two ideas. For example, “I didn’t really want to go the sea, but as it was a nice day I did.”


Another one that often confuses people when it comes to punctuation rules is the semicolon. But don’t worry, it’s actually pretty simple!

A semicolon connects two separate but linked sentences to create one. For example, “Henry always wanted to visit France; he liked the food that they are famous for.”

They can also separate complex lists, like “I like the pasta from the Italian restaurant; the noodles from the Chinese restaurant; the burgers from the diner; and the milkshakes from the fast food restaurant.”

En Dash

The en dash represents the connecting of two values. Often, it replaces words such as ‘to’ and ‘through’. So, for example, “Read pages 10 to 20” becomes “Read pages 10-20”.

Em Dash

Similar in name to the en dash, the em dash is different when it comes to the use of punctuation marks in English. They can be used to add an extra sentence within a sentence, to add details and to show an interruption. Here are the three examples:

“She kicked the ball to the left side of the net – she usually went for the right, but she knew she would’ve missed – and it flew in to a cheer from the crowd.”

“You’re only allowed certain foods inside the premises – no drinks or liquids allowed.”

“He shouted, ‘Hey! Where do you think you’re-‘

‘I’m in a rush! I’ll explain later!’ she ran out the door.“


Hyphens are used to join words together, adding prefixes or suffixes.

“Harry was not very well-liked.”

“My great-grandfather loved eating cheese.”

“He’s the co-author.”

If this is all a bit confusing and you think you could do with some extra support, check out UKCE. Our courses can help you make sense of punctuation marks in English as well as all the other tricky aspects of the language. We think our college is the best place to become fluent in English, but we’ll let you decide that for yourself!