punctuation mark

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any of a group of conventional marks or characters used in punctuation, as the period, comma, semicolon, question mark, or dash.
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Origin of punctuation mark

First recorded in 1855–60
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What is a punctuation mark?

A punctuation mark is a mark or character used to punctuate, that is, to separate, elements of writing, such as sentences or phrases.

In writing, we use punctuation marks like the commas and period in this sentence, to make things easier for a reader to understand. If we removed every punctuation mark from this article, you’d find it much harder to understand!

In English, we use more than a dozen punctuation marks. The period (.), question mark (?), and exclamation point (!) are used to end sentences, as in:

  • I like that cat.
  • Whose cat is that?
  • It is the queen’s cat! 

The comma (,), colon (:), and semicolon (;) are used to separate elements within a sentence or indicate a pause:

  • Bob, look at this cat.
  • The cat only does three things: eat, sleep, and meow.
  • I love this cat; I wish it was my cat. 

Other commonly used punctuation marks include parentheses (( )), hyphens (-), apostrophes (’), and ellipses (…), which have a variety of uses.

Why are punctuation marks important?

The first records of the term punctuation mark comes from around 1855. It combines punctuation, which means “the system of using certain conventional marks in writing to separate elements and make the meaning clear,” and mark, which means “a symbol used in writing.” Actual punctuation marks have existed since the printing of books, although the rules of how we use them have changed over time (and are still changing).

The humble period (.) is probably the punctuation mark you are most familiar with and use all of the time. Question marks (?) and exclamation points (!) are also pretty easy to use, although you might not need them as often. The other punctuation marks can be trickier to use. Some people struggle with the correct use of commas and semicolons their whole lives (and are grateful for editors who correct the punctuation in their work).

Why do we use punctuation marks at all? Many of them mimic the pauses, breaths, stops, and other quirks of spoken language that letters can’t represent by themselves. Others tell us how words are related to each other. In my favorite blue-green vest, the hyphen tells us that the color of the vest is a blend of blue and green, not that it has blue and green in it. And some tell us that someone made a specific statement, as the quotation marks (“ ”) do in Mark said, “I love catching up with old friends!”

Did you know ... ?

American English and British English don’t use punctuation marks exactly the same. For example, British English doesn’t use a period (or a full stop, as it is called in Britain) at the ends of many abbreviations, as in Dr, Mr, and Ms instead of Dr., Mr., and Ms.

What are real-life examples of punctuation marks?

The following chart lists the most common English punctuation marks.



Question mark


Exclamation point










( )


[ ]


{ }



Quotation marks

“ ”


Punctuation marks are a central part of writing.

Quiz yourself!

Which of the following symbols is NOT an example of a punctuation mark?

A. ?
B. !
C. ;
D. Q

How to use punctuation mark in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for punctuation mark

punctuation mark

any of the signs used in punctuation, such as a comma or question mark
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012