How to punctuate a sentence

In my report a need to write a list of example questions that someone might ask, but I would like to do it in a sentence rather than a separate list. Here is an example:

This poses questions such as “How should I punctuate it?”, “Are the quotes necessary?”, “Are the commas in the correct place?”, and “Should I have used a colon, or a semi-colon?”

How to punctuate a sentence

5 Answers 5

I’d use a bulleted list and drop the quotation marks, like so:

  • How should I punctuate it?
  • Are the quotes necessary?
  • Are the commas in the correct place?
  • Should I have used a colon, or a semi-colon?

Such formatting would look out of place in a novel or other prose, but would look very natural online or in some technical document. While I may be a product of my time, I think bulleted lists are an excellent way to break up a list of items and does so without a bunch of cluttering punctuation.

In cases where a bulleted list would be out of place, I’d suggest using a colon and ditching the quotation marks, like so:

This poses questions such as: How should I punctuate it? Are the quotes necessary? Are the commas in the correct place? Should I have used a colon, or a semi-colon?

Here’s how I would write it:

This poses questions such as “How should I punctuate it,” “Are the quotes necessary,” “Are the commas in the correct place,” and “Should I have used a colon, or a semi-colon?”

I would say that the more important punctuation mark here is the comma, and you can’t have both. Since the questions are obviously questions even without a question mark, and since you are referring to the questions as objects rather than invoking them as queries, it’s OK to lose the question marks.

For example, you could imagine

The interview consisted of the usual “Where did you go to school” kind of question.

There is no need for a question mark here because you are using “Where did you go to school” as the name of a question to which you are referring, rather than as the question itself.

To some extent, though, your choice here is going to depend on what tone and cadence you want the reader to imagine in their head. Putting in the question marks will cause the reader to pause and raise their inner voices as if reading a question, which will have the effect of putting more emphasis on the specific question. Leaving out the question marks will cause the reader to rush through the list without pausing or imagining a question, which will have the effect of de-emphasizing the questions. So it’s up to you what kind of melody you want the prose to have.

Brackets (or parentheses) are a useful type of punctuation. However, it can be hard to know where to put other punctuation marks when a sentence contains brackets. So how does this work? Check out our advice on how to punctuate brackets for more information.

Periods: Inside or Outside?

We’re often asked whether to place periods inside or outside closing brackets. But this depends on the situation. As a rule, you should:

  • Place periods inside brackets when an entire sentence is parenthetical.
  • Place periods outside closing brackets in all other cases.

So when bracketed text is part of a longer sentence, the period goes after the closing bracket:

The cake looks great (and tastes even better).

The cake looks great (and tastes even better.)

And when a whole sentence is parenthetical, the period goes inside the closing bracket:

I ate the whole cake. (And now I am full.)

I ate the whole cake. (And now I am full).

Brackets and Commas

When it comes to comma placement and brackets, there are two main rules:

  1. You will almost never need a comma before an opening bracket.
  2. You only need a comma after a closing bracket at the end of a clause.

As such, you only need a comma after a closing bracket if the sentence would contain one anyway. And this means we can check whether a comma is correct by removing the bracketed text.

For example, below we have one correct and one incorrect comma:

We’re going to the zoo tomorrow (Tuesday), which will be nice.

Big cats (e.g., lions and tigers), are predators.

Find this useful?

Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.

And if we remove the bracketed text, we can see why the second is wrong:

We’re going to the zoo tomorrow, which will be nice.

Big cats, are predators.

We do not need a comma between “cats” and “are” here. And since this sentence does not need a comma, it doesn’t need one when we add the bracketed text either.

Exclamation Points and Question Marks

Finally, we’ll look at exclamation points and question marks. Like periods, these are forms of terminal punctuation, so they usually indicate the end of a sentence. However, unlike periods, you can use an exclamation point or a question mark within brackets mid-sentence. For instance:

The man (what was his name?) left a note.

Here, we use a question mark to show the bracketed text is a question.

It’s worth noting here that the punctuation inside brackets does not affect the rest of the sentence. And as such, when a sentence ends with bracketed text that includes an exclamation point or a question mark, we still need to add a period after the closing bracket. For example:

I was not invited (and I am furious!).

I was not invited (and I am furious!)

Summary: How to Punctuate Brackets

It can be tricky to know where to put punctuation in a sentence that includes brackets. However, we have a few simple guidelines to follow that will help ensure your written work is error free:

  1. Always place periods outside closing brackets unless the entire sentence is parenthetical, in which case the period goes inside.
  2. Only use a comma after a closing bracket at the end of a clause.
  3. Use question marks and exclamation points inside brackets as required. However, don’t forget to add a period after the closing bracket.

And if you’d like more help with your punctuation, you can always get your work proofread by the experts.

If you’ve been around long enough, you know that certain kinds of punctuation are trendy (hello, em dash!). And some are like the pets that you put in the backyard when company comes over (we’re looking at you, parentheses).

Dashes, commas, colons, and ellipses are often used to heighten drama in a sentence. But not always in a good way.

Let’s take a look at how each is properly used:

1. Comma. The most versatile of the marks is the comma. It wears many hats, but its two main functions are: (a) to set off nonessential expressions that interrupt the flow of thought and (b) to separate elements, thereby clarifying the relationship between them.

The comma is the most modest of the marks. It doesn’t draw undue attention to itself or to the material it sets off or separates. The comma is so common that usage examples would only elicit a chorus of “duhs.” Suffice it to say that as long as a comma doesn’t preempt a role specifically assigned to the colon, semicolon, or parentheses, it is generally the safe choice to set off information and separate elements. It might not be the flashiest choice, but it gets the job done.

2. Colon. The colon is straightforward in its application: It is used, as in this sentence, after an independent clause to (a) emphasize a word, phrase, or sentence which directly explains or illustrates the main clause or (b) introduce a list of items. Like an Army sergeant, the colon is focused and demanding. It calls out: Hey you—read this. Depending on its use, the first letter that follows the colon may or may not be capitalized. If either side of the colon can be its own sentence, the word after the colon is capitalized. If what follows after the colon is a list, then the words are lowercased.

3. Semicolon. The semicolon is arguably the only punctuation mark subject to long-running ridicule by the writing public. Kurt Vonnegut famously said the only rea­son to use one would be “to show you’ve been to college.”

Tsk-tsk, we beg to differ! It may be that the semicolon’s bad rap began with its naming. It should have been called the “semiperiod,” as it is used to join two independent clauses that could stand alone as sentences where either (a) a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.) or (b) a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, etc.) has been omitted.

We like to think of the semicolon as providing a greater degree of intimacy and clarity, in the right circumstances, than would two distinct sentences. Consider this example: Susan loves pasta primavera; John does not. It is clear that John does not love pasta primavera. If the example is broken into two sentences, the expression becomes somewhat ambiguous: John does not—what?

4. Parentheses. Used to enclose explanatory material that is independent of the main thought of the sentence (that is, nonessential), parentheses can bracket a single word, a phrase, an entire sentence, a number, or a date (or just about anything else).

As with semicolons, they have their place, but overuse can imply mental laziness. Before using parentheses, it is wise to ask yourself if the material is important enough to be included without parentheses, and if it’s not, is it important enough to be added at all?

5. Em dash. Like parentheses, the em dash can set off nonessential elements; but it does the parentheses one better—it can also set off essential elements. Accordingly, the em dash, under the right circumstances, serves as an alternative to any of the other marks—the comma, colon, semicolon, and parentheses—as long as it is used sparingly and for special emphasis only.

6. Ellipses. It’s hard not to love an ellipsis. They’re so mysterious—the punctuation mark sitting at the bar with a dry martini and a secret past that everyone’s dying to know. An ellipsis is a slippery little devil, mostly used to mean, “Hey reader, you can guess where this is going, even though I’m not going to tell you…” When the ellipsis takes off its casual wear for a stint in a quoted sentence in a thesis or newspaper article, it means that material has been left out.

Deciding which mark to use

Is the pause you wish to create with a punctuation mark (and the information that will follow it) subject to the precise rules of the colon and semicolon? If so, use the appropriate one.

If not, ask yourself if the material to be added is essential or nonessential.

If essential, use the comma, or, if you really want to draw attention to it, use the more powerful em dash.

If nonessential, use the comma if you wish to discreetly add the information; parentheses if you wish to make it a bit more noticeable; and the em dash if you want to draw maximum attention.

How to punctuate a sentence

QUESTION: Which one of these punctuation marks most tickles your fancy?

How to punctuate a sentence

How to punctuate bullet lists can be tricky because various style guides contradict each other. This is a grammar guide that accompanies our post on how to write better bullet points.

We have three punctuation issues to consider:

Should the ending punctuation at the end of each bullet list be a period, a semicolon, or no punctuation?

Should the first letter of the bullet list be capitalized?

Should the opening stem sentence end with a colon to introduce the bullet lists or use no colon?

Let me frame my recommendations. You are reading a blog that focuses on business writing. The most accepted style guide in business writing and web publishing is the AP Stylebook. We recommend following the AP Stylebook’s bullet punctuation, with additional clarifications that AP doesn’t address.

Let’s tackle the ending punctuation of each bullet first.

By far, this is the most vexing punctuation issue!

AP Stylebook recommends:

“Capitalize the first word following the dash or bullet. Use periods, not semicolons, at the end of each section or a phrase.” This is clear, but AP doesn’t fully address when to omit a period at the end of each bullet.

The Gregg Reference Manual uses periods only after bullets that are dependent clauses and long phrases.

Garner’s Modern American Usage inserts periods at the end of bullet lists only if the bullet list begins with a capital letter. However, Garner qualifies this:

“If you begin each item with a lowercase letter, put a semicolon at the end of each item, use and after the next-to-last item, and put a period after the last item.” Garner calls this “vertical lists punctuated as a sentence.” This is where the semicolon confusion comes in.

The Chicago Manual of Style has pages of rules and examples of bullet lists that agree with the Garner style recommendation to use semicolons after each item, use and after the next-to-last-item, and use a period at the end of the last item.

Here is an example of that style:

  • connection to my family;
  • beautiful green scenery; and
  • friendly, fun, welcoming people.

I do not recommend this “vertical lists punctuated as a sentence” format with semicolons for business writing. It’s visually cluttered, impeding easy scan. While it’s not wrong and some style guides recommend this, it’s not the best business writing choice.

I recommend AP’s style guidance for end punctuation:

  • Use a period or other full stop after every bullet that is a sentence. (Just like this bullet list you’re reading now.)
  • Use a period after bullet list that completes the opening stem sentence that introduces it.
  • Don’t use a period after bullet lists that are not complete sentences or do not complete the opening stem sentence.
  • Don’t use semicolons to end punctuation.
  • Use either all full sentences in your bullet lists or all fragments. Avoid a mix.

All of these recommendations follow AP, but one clarification is needed. Don’t use a period at the end of a bullet if the bullet lists are one word or a short phrase that feels like an inventory or shopping list.

Here is an example of bullet lists that need a period to complete the introductory stem sentence:

  • Connection to my family.
  • Beautiful green scenery.
  • Friendly, fun, welcoming people.

Here is an example of bullets lists that do not need a period because they are fragments not connected to the introductory stem sentence:

  • Connection to my family
  • Beautiful green scenery
  • Friendly, fun, welcoming people

Here is an example of bullet lists that do not need a period because they’re one word or a short phrase that feels like an inventory or shopping list:

  • Natural beauty
  • Friendly people
  • Music
  • Brown bread
  • Rainbows
  • History

Should the first letter of the bullet list be capitalized?

This issue is straightforward. Yes. In business writing, capitalize the first letter of bullet lists.

All style guides agree to capitalize the first letter of the bullet list unless you opt for the “vertical lists punctuated as a sentence” format using semicolons, illustrated above.

Good business writing seeks to make information easy to understand. It’s illogical to use semicolons and “vertical lists punctuated as sentences” in business writing because it’s visually cluttered so it’s harder to scan.

Problem solved. In business writing, capitalize the first letter and keep bullet list punctuation clean.

  • Connection to my family.
  • Beautiful green scenery.
  • Friendly, fun, welcoming people.

Should the opening stem sentence end with a colon to introduce the bullet lists?

Another easy decision. In business writing, yes, use a colon at the end of the introductory stem sentence.

  • Connection to my family.
  • Beautiful green scenery.
  • Friendly, fun, welcoming people.

Because AP recommends the colon and AP is the preferred business writing style guide, I recommend using it consistently in your business writing.

Not using a colon isn’t wrong, but omit it only with certainty that you comply with the style guide of your choice.

Does this matter?

Are we nitpicking punctuation with these considerations of bullet lists? Certainly, your business writing’s substance and information are far more critical than exacting punctuation that technically is neither correct nor incorrect since style guides vary.

However, clear bullet list punctuation adds visual “scan-ability” to your business writing. It makes it easier for your reader. Careful punctuation also reflects thought and care.

If you feel punctuation does not matter, consider the impact of punctuation in these bullet lists:

The words therefore and however have similarities. The same rules also apply for words such as moreover and furthermore.

The start of a sentence

The most frequent use is at the start of a sentence. As in the examples below, place a comma after therefore, although modern writers tend to drop this comma it is indicative of a pause so I’d suggest keeping it.

Therefore, this paper draws on empirical audience research to address …

Therefore, they cannot work with Andrea, so she has to look …

WARNING! Elements of Style by William Strunk, disagrees with starting sentences with the word ‘however’. Mainly, because at the start of the sentence the word ‘however’ means ‘in whatever way’ or ‘to whatever extent’ (Garner and Chicago punctuation usage may disagree, which is why it’sgood to pick a grammar style and stick with it).

However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp.

The example sentence above could be rewritten as: In whatever way, we at last succeeded in reaching camp. Still, if you want to use ‘however’ in its other sense (meaning yet/nevertheless) either move the word in the sentence or replace it with another word.

The middle of a sentence

The next frequent use is in the middle of a sentence. For instance, to introduce a separate sentence that expresses a complete thought (in other words two independent clauses). Usually done by using a semi-colon (;) and followed by a comma.

Boxing is against school rules; moreover, it’s dangerous.

…Scott’s use of humour is apparent in the mainstream media; therefore, Frye’s five stages seem to encapsulate several aspects of…

It is also possible (largely in fiction) to use a comma in place of the semi-colon, this treats therefore like a conjunction (a sentence connection). Or to use it in the middle of a sentence instead of ‘for example’ or ‘for instance’:

How to punctuate a sentence

For emphasis

Therefore also appears in the middle of a sentence for emphasis separated from the rest of the text by commas.

You can, therefore, do whatever you like.

Love, however, is very materially assisted by a warm and active imagination.

However can also be written like this, but usually with a semi-colon as it is an adverb and should, technically, join two independent sentences. But one reason I would say it is okay to use commas with ‘however’ is, first, when the word interrupts the flow of the sentence, creating a pause and an emphasis which allows the writer to say, “I’m about to give an example of an exception” (or similar). And, second, the second quote above was from Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Can Dickens be wrong? Probably, but if it worked for him…

Elements of Style states not to use a comma, however, modern usage tends to use a comma.

Bear these three possibilities in mind when writing and your writing will be clearer and more precise:

  • The start of a sentence
  • The middle of a sentence
  • For emphasis

Reach me here for help with any writing projects.

Who is Emma?

How to punctuate a sentence

Emma is a proofreader with 18 years of writing experience with businesses, academics and creative writers. She obtained a Creative Writing MA (St Andrews University) and a PhD in Storytelling (Warwick University). Then set up her own proofreading business and became a published author of fiction as well as academic literature such as Young People, Learning & Storytelling (Palgrave Macmillan).