Punctuation creates meaning and helps people understand our writing. Careful comma placement clarifies, while slapdash semi-colons usage stumps. To make the reading experience as smooth as possible, we use our marks, dots and dashes consistently, following the conventions below.
"The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning."
- Lynne Truss
We always use "and" instead of an ampersand (&), except in:
- company names that include an ampersand, e.g. Marks & Spencer,
- accepted abbreviations, e.g. A&E, and
- academic references, e.g. Evans-Lacko S., Corker E., Williams P., Henderson C. & Thornicroft G. (2014).
Use an apostrophe to indicate a missing letter or letters (it's, we'll) or a possessive (Mind's style guide).
The possessive in words and names ending in S normally takes an apostrophe followed by another S (Jones's, James's). The exception to this is where you wouldn't pronounce the additional S. In these cases, use the plural apostrophe without an extra S: Waters', Hedges' rather than Waters's, Hedges's.
Plural nouns ending in S take an apostrophe in the possessive: carers' rights, members' contributions.
Plural nouns that do not end in S take an apostrophe and S in the possessive: young people's mental health.
Use a colon to introduce an example or to add information:
- symptoms of anxiety: tenseness, inability to cope, panic attacks
Use a colon after tel, web, and email in useful contacts:
- tel: 020 552 8569
- email: [email protected]
Do not put a capital letter after a colon, unless the colon is introducing a bulleted or numbered list of full sentences.
Use commas to clarify meaning and to separate items in simple lists:
- Symptoms of anxiety include tenseness, inability to cope, panic attacks and irritability.
We do not use the oxford comma, sometimes called the serial comma, except where it's needed to clarify meaning.
Only use a comma before a conjunction (but, and) when the sentence is made up of several long clauses and a pause is needed between the different sections:
'You might find that life events such as losing your job, ending a relationship or being bereaved give your confidence a huge knock, but high self-esteem can act as a buffer to absorb these knocks.'
We prefer to break up long strings of clauses into two or more sentences.
Dashes and hyphens
Always use an en dash, never an em dash. And en dash (–) is longer than a hyphen (-), but shorter than an em dash (—).
Use a dash (without spaces) to indicate a range or period of time, for example:
- 1–2 tablets
- pp. 11–12
- 2–3 weeks
A pair of dashes (with a space on either side) can be used instead of parentheses, especially if you want to emphasise the parenthetical content:
- When you are discharged – however this happens – the teams of professionals working with you should talk to you about what will what will happen.
A dash can be used to introduce an example or additional information, or to link two parts of a sentence when you want to emphasise the conclusion:
- The responsible clinician should send a report – but only if the AMHP agrees.
The difference between a dash and hyphen is the length. Microsoft Word often autocorrects hyphens to dashes if used between words, but you can also manually enter a dash by pressing CTRL and the minus sign (-) on the number pad of your keyboard.
Words should not be split at the end of lines, unless they are compound words that usually have hyphens. For example, "short-term" could be split over a line, but "email" couldn't.
As a general rule, hyphenate words with the following prefixes: semi, anti, ultra, self, ex, non, multi and re.
Exclamation marks should only be used with extreme care. They can be used to show that a sentence is an imperative or an exclamation, or, very occasionally, to communicate surprise. Never use double exclamation marks and, if possible, avoid using more than one in a piece of content.
Question marks communicate to the reader that a sentence is a question. They take the place of other punctuation and end a sentence, so don't add an additional full stop or comma after a question mark. In reported speech, the question mark should be inside the quotation marks. Generally avoid rhetorical questions.
Quotation marks mark the beginning and end of reported speech. We use curly, double quotation marks in the first instance, and single quote marks inside these if the person being quoted is themselves quoting somebody else. Avoid using quotation marks to communicate that something is metaphorical, or so-called.
Use semicolons in complex lists where individual items may also need commas. An example of this is discussing side effects – Uncommon: raised blood sugar; fainting; fits; abnormal muscle movements, including tics, shaking, spasms of eye muscles, slowed movements; difficulty speaking; slow heart beat, changes to heart rhythm.
Semicolons can also be used to separate two clauses of a sentence, especially where those two clauses are in opposition to each other or where there's a contrast between the first clause and the second.