Punctuation – Definition, Common Mistakes, and Rules

29.04.23 Punctuation Time to read: 4min

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In academic writing, grammatical mistakes are frequently occurring obstacles in the process of writing an academic paper. More specifically, punctuation may create wrong meanings or ambiguity when used incorrectly. This article outlines commonly made punctuation mistakes and navigates you to more detailed articles dealing with each punctuation individually.

Punctuation – In a Nutshell

  • Even small punctuation mistakes may affect a meaning tremendously
  • Misusing it may create ambiguity or wrong meanings
  • Punctuating incorrectly may also affect words, pluralizing, citations, and capitalization
  • Common mistakes are made when using apostrophes, quotation marks, periods, commas, and semicolons.

Definition: Punctuation

Punctuation defines symbols that are included in writing to provide a clear distinction between sentences, phrases and paragraphs. They also serve to give specific meanings to words or phrases.1 Common punctuation marks in academic writing are apostrophes, colons, commas, dashes, exclamation points, hyphens, parentheses, question marks, quotation marks, and semicolons.2

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Incorrect apostrophe punctuation

Apostrophes are often added to pluralize words, which is incorrect. They are used in words to indicate possession with the exception of pronouns. Furthermore, they are used in contractions substituting left-out letters.3

Examples of apostrophes indicating possession:

 The experiments resources were limited.

The experiment’s resources were limited.

 It was her’s.

It was hers.

Examples of apostrophes indicating contractions:

I have not drawn a conclusion yet.

I haven’t drawn a conclusion yet.

It does not contribute to the results.

It doesn’t contribute to the results.

Incorrect quotation marks punctuation

Quotation marks are often used incorrectly in academic writing. This list will outline the rules when it is relevant to use quotation marks:

  • Citing the exact words of someone else
  • Titles of articles, movies, plays or other types of media
  • Slang or foreign words
  • Expressing irony or sarcasm3

Incorrect period or comma punctuation

In American English, periods are placed inside the quotation marks. However, in British and Canadian English, the periods are placed outside the quotation marks.

Commas are frequently overused and the rules for commas are universally unclear. The following list outlines when it is correct to use commas:3

  • In dates, addresses, titles and numbers
  • Between clauses that are connected with conjunctions
  • Sentence parts with subject-verb agreement
  • After introductory clauses
  • Sentences that can’t stand alone or don’t have direct reference to the main clause
  • Nonessential references to a noun
  • After directly addressing someone by name
  • Lists or series

Incorrect semicolon punctuation

Other common mistakes are made when punctuating semicolons, as it is often misconceived that comma rules apply. However, semicolons are used much less than commas and have their own rules. The following list will account for the most common ways to use semicolons: 3

  • Connecting two complete and related sentences
  • Connecting two related sentences, where the second sentence stars with a conjunctive adverb, e.g. nevertheless, however, moreover etc.
  • A list within a series

Articles about individual punctuations

Find elaborated articles about each punctuation listed in the table below:

Punctuation Example
Apostrophes (‘) Haven’t
Colons (:) Example:
Commas (,) Chris, I would expand.
Dashes (–) A while ago – not important how long ago – he said…
Exclamation points (!) Be careful!
Hyphens (-) Well-known
Parentheses () There is no apostrophe (not our’s, but ours)
Question marks (?) What is your answer to this question?
Quotation marks (“…”) As she previously stated, “The cars where not affected by the impact.”
Semicolons (;) My bike broke down last evening; it’s in reparation right now.
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Punctuation represents symbols or a series of marks that make up a clear distinction between sentences, phrases, and paragraphs. They also indicate and alter meanings of words or sentences.

Punctuating mistakes in academic writing are typically made when using apostrophes, colons, commas, dashes, exclamation points, hyphens, parentheses, question marks, quotation marks, and semicolons.

These rules make out the core of punctuating rules:

  • Always end a sentence with a period, question mark, exclamation point, or a semicolon.
  • In American English, include periods and commas within quotation marks and keep dashes, colons, and semicolons outside the quotation marks.
  • Quotation marks and parenthesis always come in a pair
  • Nonessential phrases or sentence parts are always separated with commas
  • Add commas after introductory sentences


1 Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary. “Meaning of Punctuation in English.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/punctuation.

2 English Grammar Today. “Punctuation.” Cambridge Dictionary. Accessed April 20, 2023. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/de/grammatik/britisch-grammatik/punctuation.

3 Petras, Kathy and Ross Petras. “Don’t make these 11 punctuation mistakes that ‘irritate people the most,’ say grammar experts.” CNBC make it. May 31, 2022. https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/31/sound-smarter-by-avoiding-these-punctuation-mistakes-that-irritate-people-the-most-grammar-experts.html.