What are abbreviations for?

Abbreviations are words, phrases or names that are represented by letters, which people recognize as a conventional shortening.

  • You don’t need to use full stops between the letters of most abbreviations:
    • BBC
    • USA
    • MA
    • PhD
    • OBE
  • You don’t need to use full stops after name titles
    • Mr
    • Mrs
    • Ms
    • Dr

and even between initials: J R R Tolkien (although this has not become standard practise yet.)

  • Numerical abbreviations do not need stops: 2nd 3rd
    • Nor do abbreviations of counties
    • Northants
    • Bucks
    • or for points of the compass
    • NW
    • SE

Most abbreviations become plural in the usual way by adding s but the former custom of slipping in an apostrophe is old-fashioned: MPs, MAs, not MP’s, MA’s.

A few plurals are formed by doubling up on one letter: MS (manuscript) becomes MSS (manuscripts); p7 (page 7) becomes pp. 7-9.

Where an abbreviation is used for the title of a book, it should be in italics or underlined, as it would be if the title were in full: OED (Oxford English Dictionary.  

Apostrophe [']

What is an apostrophe for?

  1. possessives
  2. contractions
  3. plurals
  4. unnecessary apostrophes

The apostrophe is used to indicate possession (ownership) and contraction (missing letters)

  • Possession

If you sense that you need an s with an apostrophe for example if you are writing ‘the girl’s bag’.

If you can turn the words around to be (in this instance) the bag belonging to the girl, then you are indicating possession, that is, ownership. This applies also to qualities ‘the man’s courage’ or ‘John’s temper.’

If the word you want to make possessive is plural however, you may already have an s at the end of the word. The example above describes one girl who owns one bag. If you wanted to write about the bags belonging to the girls, you put the apostrophe after the whole word. The s in this case is for the plural and it is the job of the apostrophe to indicate possession without the s. It goes after the whole word – the girls’ bags.

If the word is plural, but irregular – not ending in s – use the apostrophe as in the first example ‘girl’s bag.’ The women’s bags, can be reversed to ‘the bags belonging to the women’ so when the s is gone it still makes sense.

  • Hers, yours, theirs ours, its never take an apostrophe for possession because they are already possessive: ‘the book is yours, theirs, ours…’But distinguish between its (possessive) and it’s (contraction for ‘it is’), theirs (possessive) and there’s (contraction for there is).
  • Don’t use an apostrophe for abbreviations, or years (TDs is correct, not TD’s; 1990s is correct, not 1990’s).


  • Names ending in s. There is no reliable rule, only custom. Charles’s office’ is more usual than ‘Charles’ office’ but it is always Jesus’ parables and the Jones’s house’, etc.

When there are two names, it is more relaxed to place the apostrophe after the second name only: ‘We went to George and Tom’s house’, which is not incorrect but is rather laboured.

  • contraction

Contraction means putting two words together and dropping some of the letters. An apostrophe indicates where the letters have been dropped. Examples include ‘they’re, you’ve, can’t.’ Note, however, that although they are common in spoken English, it is most often better in written academic English to avoid using contractions, unless you are quoting reported speech, for example: ‘Woody Allen quipped: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying.”’

Brackets [()]

Brackets are useful for including a piece of background information, without holding up the flow of the sentence. The same job can be done by commas or dashes, with varying degrees of separation.  

Brackets mark off a complete separation from the main sentence.

A sentence should still make sense if the words in brackets are omitted.

Punctuation within brackets

Treat the words inside the brackets as though it were a sentence that you can punctuate as you wish. Often an exclamation mark will be used to add your own emphasis to the bracketed point, or a question mark may be used to indicate that the bracketed point is a question. Quotation marks indicate that the bracketed words are spoken or thought.

  • Example with exclamation mark: ‘He said he would do his best (as if we expected less!) and that he would try to be as quick as possible also.

Commas frequently come after the brackets, and are used where a natural pause would come as they do normally in sentences without brackets.

Colon [:]

A colon is used primarily when you are listing:


  • There are three historical sources of belief: reason or intellect, custom or habit, and inspiration.
  • The Abbey Theatre announces the opening of the following plays: The Plough and the Stars, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Burial at Thebes.

It is also used to separate an explanation, rule, or example from a preceding independent clause.

  • The word ‘art’ does not occur in any English Dictionary before 1880, and seems to have been chiefly used by painters and writers on painting, until the present century: it now refers to all subjects of taste, as poetry, music, dancing, the drama, oratory, literary composition.

The colon is also used:

After the salutation of a business letter.

  • Dear Mr. Treanor:

In the heading of a business memo.

  • TO:

Between the hour and the minutes.

  • 7:30 p.m.

Between the chapter and the verse in the Bible, in citations for some literary works, and between the volume and the number of some publications.

  • Genesis 1: 10-12
  • Part 3: 121
  • 2: 34

As part of a title. It is quite trendy to use the colon in titles and a browse through academic journals will reveal many examples like the following:

‘The Resistant Gap: Foucault, Lacan, and Resistance’

In a bibliography between the place of publication and the name of the publisher. The colon must always be used in this instance, for example  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Comma [,]

Even the greatest writers agonize at times over whether to put a comma in or leave it out. The style is now to use them as sparingly as possible.

Commas separate items in a list but not usually between the last but one item and the ‘and’ leading on to the last item: history, literature, politics and economics.

But there are times when a comma before the ‘and’ helps, particularly when there are descriptive words: ‘Roman history, English Literature, international politics, and economics.’ Leaving out the comma after ‘politics’ in this instance could imply that ‘International politics and economics was one course instead of two.

Use a Comma between descriptive words: an imaginative, innovative, recently published work of fiction. 

When not to use a comma: 

Addresses and dates: the old custom of putting a comma after a house number and the month was dropped some years ago. It is now 25 Dawson Street, 14th February 2004 (not 25, Dawson Street, 14th, February, 1993).

In letters, commas after ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Julie-Ann’ and so on or after signing-offs, such as ‘Yours sincerely’ are no longer the rule and are often omitted.

Ellipsis [...]

The ellipsis is a series of three dots, or, under certain conditions, four. It is never five or six or any other number. In composition the principal function of the ellipsis is to mark the omission of material from a quotation.

Use an ellipsis to acknowledge that you have omitted something from a passage you are quoting.

Of course, the omission must not change the substance of what the other writer said, and if you do alter his or her meaning, the use of an ellipsis will not save you from a charge of dishonesty. The same caution applies to adding explanatory matter within brackets: it must not substantially alter the original meaning.

If the deleted matter occurs within the quoted sentence, three dots are used:

Full passage

The descriptions of farming operations, for instance, the sheepshearing, and the haymaking, and the sheep-washing with the tender episode attached to it, and the lambing in the cold winter months among the snow, are graphically given. (Michael Millgate)

To make the point without the unnecessary description when you are quoting this, you could write:

‘The descriptions of farming operations […] are graphically given.’

Notice the spacing: spaces are left between the preceding word and the first dot, between each dot and the next, and between the last dot and the following word.

The ellipsis is also used in dialogue to indicate doubt, indecision, weariness, and so on. In the following sentence, for example the ellipsis signals not an omission of any word but the trailing off of the voice, suggesting the speaker’s uncertainty:

She sighed and answered, ‘I really don’t know …’

Hyphens and dashes [-]

Hyphens should be used (or omitted) with the reader in mind, that is, to avoid confusion of meaning: ‘three-inch nails’ is one thing, ‘three inch-nails’ is something else.

  • We should be more liberal with hyphens in compounds coming before a noun, as they combine separate elements into one descriptive word. ‘The figures have been brought up-to-date,’ ‘a concert in the open air’ becomes ‘an open-air concert’; ‘we must investigate this in depth,’ becomes an ‘in-depth investigation.’
  • When verbs plus linking words are used as nouns, hyphens are necessary for cohesion. We run through a procedure and the result is a run-through; when things are mixed up they become a mix-up; burglars break in and a break-in occurs.

Don’t use a hyphen:

  • The ever-increasing tendency is to drop the hyphen when a compound word becomes familiar, and write it as one word. Week-end had universally become weekend by the 1960s, and there are many other examples of words fused together. Where both hyphenated and one-word forms exist, you can assume that it’s only a matter of time before the hyphen fades out: healthfood, lifeforce, marketplace, shopwindow…are examples of words hyphenated in some dictionaries but shown as one word in others.
  • Most co- words do not need a hyphen any more. Dictionaries now drop the hyphen (or show it as an alternative spelling) in cooperate and coordinate. A co-op shop keeps its hyphen as does co-opt, because it helps with the pronunciation. Co-pilot is losing the hyphen, but co-author and co-star retain hyphens, for the time being, again to help with pronunciation.
  • With re- words, the hyphen is now usually left out, even when the resultant word looks odd: redo, reread, rerun, restructure…
  • But when the following word begins with an e, the hyphen is retained to help with pronunciation: re-elect, re-educate, re-entry, re-establish…A hyphen is also useful to separate some nouns from verbs: refund/re-fund, reform/re-form, recount/re-count.
  • With over- words. Some dictionaries now show every one as a complete word, without a hyphen: overanxious, overblown, overcapacity…The tendency is to drop the hyphen, so if in doubt, leave it out. Italics

Dashes are useful – when the fancy takes you, for a humorous or dramatic effect. A dash differs in function from the hyphen (see note) in that it is used in the context of a sentence rather than between words (co-operate has a hyphen).

But dashes should be used sparingly.

They have four useful functions:

  • Dashes (like commas or brackets) can separate a comment from the rest of the sentence: ‘I ran for the bus – already late – when the heel came clean off my shoe.’
  • A dash can lead to a follow-up: ‘It was the best news I’d heard all day – that you got the job.’
  • A dash can gather up a list of things and lead on to a general statement about them: ‘Income tax, a mortgage, instalments on the car, renting a TV – by the time you’ve paid all of those, there’s not much left’.
  • ‘Here are the things you need – a passport, airline ticket, money. A colon would have done after ‘need’, (:) but a dash is sharper, more energetic. There is no need to use a colon and a dash (: -), as either does the job.

Italics [Italics]

Italics should be used sparingly. Here are four basic guidelines:

  • Titles of books, plays, operas, works of art, etc. should go into italics to single them out. The word ‘The’ is sometimes a problem: if it is part of the title, it should also be in italics, but if the flow of a sentence allows, it does no harm at times to leave out ‘The’ altogether. ‘Shakespeare’s Tempest and Merchant of Venice were written at different periods.’
  • With newspaper and periodicals, some consider The part of the title and require it to be in italics. In general, this applies more to the broadsheets (The Times, The Independent, The Observer, etc.) than the tabloids (Daily           Mirror, Daily Express, etc.)
  • It is helpful to pick out words in italics when attention is being focused on it, but it is often unnecessary and condescending to use italics to stress a point: ‘It is not grammatically wrong to begin a sentence with And’ (Italics are justified but laboured for ‘wrong.’)
  • Stress in speech can be marked in italics to stress a point. ‘Did he really say that?’; ‘Marry him?’
  • At one time almost any word or phrase that seemed foreign was put in italics. Even now most dictionaries are inconsistent over this. If a foreign word or phrase is considered familiar, it is left in roman, but if it is considered too foreign to be admitted, it goes in italics: á la mode but de rigeur.

Quotation marks [""]

Single quotation marks are usual now and double ones are old fashioned. Double quotation marks are only used within another set of quotation marks.

The position of punctuation marks relative to quotation marks

When a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark at the end of the quoted passage coincides with the end of the overall sentence, another full stop is not required.

When the overall sentence continues, the quoted passage is followed by a comma within the quotation marks: ‘I’d like you to meet my husband,’ she said, introducing a dark, good-looking man.

When punctuation properly belongs to a quoted passage, it goes outside the quotation marks: ‘I wonder,’ she said, ‘whether you know Jack.’

When a quoted passage is a question or exclamation, and is part of a longer sentence, only include the question/exclamation mark at the end of the main sentence: ‘Did you ask your husband “Why are you late for dinner?”?’) It is far better to avoid this problem where possible by rephrasing the sentence: ‘Did you ask your husband why he was late for dinner?’

When not to use quotation marks:

  • Writing what someone thinks is not usually regarded as a direct quotation.
  • In print, italics are used for titles of books, operas, rather than quotation marks. Quotation marks are not used for brand names.
  • When citing a quotation from a source text, the general rule is that if it is less than three lines long, leave it embodied in the paragraph, and if it is longer than three lines, set it apart, leaving a single space line before and after, and indent the entire quotation half an inch on the left.

Semi-colon [;]

The easiest way to remember the function of the semi-colon is to think of it in terms of what it looks like; it is both a comma and a full stop and its use is somewhere between the two. It is a significant pause, more so than the comma, but does not represent a completed thought as does the full stop.

Its two main functions are as follows:

To join independent clauses (group parts of sentences) in compound sentences (which have more than one idea).

The semi-colon is used when there is no coordinating conjunction between those clauses (and, or, but, nor, for, so, yet) nor a comma, used as connectors. Words like "however," "moreover," "thus," and "therefore," are often used as connectors in these sentences.

  • There was no running and no shouting; all the children behaved very well; therefore, they will all get a treat.

They are also used for the same reason when there is no ‘connector’:

  • Working mothers nationally pay an average of $53 a week for child care; this means that many women pay nearly half of their weekly salary to day care centres or babysitters.

To separate long or complicated items in a series that already includes commas:

  • The speakers were Dr. Judith Cornwell, English; Dr. Peter Mortrude, Biology; Dr. Shirley Enders, history; and Dr. Charles Viceroy, Mathematics.
  • I have recommended this student because she communicates well with other students, faculty, and staff; completes her assignments ably and on time; and demonstrates an ability to organize people, materials, and time.