Proper Punctuation: A Guide

When it comes to proper punctuation use, many students resort to their friend autocorrect when writing essays or research papers.

In fact, many students just don’t know how to use some punctuation marks. What’s the difference between a colon and a semicolon? How is a dash different than a hyphen? These are both age-old questions students struggle with in English classes.

We’ve got you covered, though. Colons and commas? Check. Question marks and quotes? We’ll cover those, too.

Proper punctuation


  • Use them to separate a list of three or more items
  • Make sure to use commas after introductory words or phrases (However, therefore, moreover)
  • Commas can be used to separate dependent and independent clauses  
  • Two commas are used to offset non-essential clauses and appositives
  • Use a comma to separate two adjectives whose order can be reversed (the short, stocky dog)

Semicolons and Colons: 

  • Colons are followed by lists or explanations 
  • Remember to make sure what comes before the colon is an independent clause
  • Semicolons are used when combining two independent clauses that are similar in context 


  • Used to begin a list or explanation (exactly like dashes)
  • Create a deliberate pause
  • 2 dashes are used to offset non-essential clauses or appositives 


  • Used for direct quotations, with titles of certain works, and to write words as words
  • Keep all commas and periods within quotation marks
  • Question marks and exclamation marks may go inside or outside quotes depending on the context
  • Use single quotation marks for quotes within quotes

Question Marks: 

  • Used for direct questions (Where are you going?)
  • Indirect questions don’t require question marks (I was wondering if you could help me with my essay.)

Learning proper punctuation is essential to developing grammar skills and improving writing. So don’t forget to practice!

If you’re still struggling with when to use these punctuation marks, check out these resources:

Harvard Writing Center

The Punctuation Guide

Learning English as a second language? Go here for some crucial tips to improve your reading and speaking skills.