Word-level punctuation

Introduction to punctuation at word level

This section explores four aspects of word-level punctuation.

At word level, punctuation is part of the conventional writing system which pupils need to be able to use with confidence.

At KS3, even competent writers are still making punctuation errors, and pupils will need to be reminded of the principles and their various exceptions.


There are two major uses for the apostrophe:

Very occasionally ‘s is possible for plurals, for example in expressions such as “mind your p’s and q’s”, but at KS3 it is probably best to ignore these exceptions to avoid confusion.

Apostrophes of omission

Apostrophes are used to show where letters have been omitted from a word or sequence of words, forming a contraction.

I don’t think he’s very happy. This morning there was a miserable expression on his face and he wouldn’t even tell us what’s been going on.

  • Contractions in spelling show contractions in pronunciation. For example, he is is different in pronunciation as well as in spelling from he’s.
  • In both speaking and writing, contracted forms are casual; in more formal speaking and writing, the full forms are used.
  • The common contractions are:
    • n’t for not, added to the verb’s usual form, e.g. didn’t, couldn’t
      • irregular forms: won’t, shan’t, can’t
    • some auxiliary verbs, e.g. ‘s for is or has
    • let’s for let us.
  • In every case, the apostrophe is written in the place where the full form has a vowel letter – e.g. ‘re for are.
  • One minor exception which is important at KS3 is the word o’clock, whose apostrophe is a historical relic, rather than an abbreviation.

Possessive apostrophes

These apostrophes help to distinguish the possessive from the plural.

  • possessive: Fred’s mother is here.
  • plural: There are three Freds in the class.

There are just two simple rules to remember, one for the apostrophe, and the other for the s:

Rule1. The apostrophe immediately follows the word or phrase which indicates the possessor. To find the possessor, use of instead of an apostrophe; the possessor follows of, e.g.

  • Fred’s mother = the mother of Fred
    • possessor = Fred
    • with apostrophe = Fred’s
  • all the boys’ mothers = the mothers of all the boys
    • possessor = all the boys
    • with apostrophe = all the boys’
  • the flock of sheep’s owner = the owner of the flock of sheep
    • possessor = the flock of sheep
    • with apostrophe = the flock of sheep’s

Notice how the apostrophe always stands immediately after the possessor, even if this already ends in s (e.g. all the boys’).

Rule 2. An extra s is written if an extra /s/ or /z/ sound is said.

  • To see whether an /s/ or /z/ sound is ‘extra’, compare it with the of pattern:
    • the men‘s team = the team of the men
    • somebody else‘s mistake = the mistake of somebody else
    • Chris‘s boat = the boat of Chris
  • Always write the extra “s” after the apostrophe, as in all these three examples.

These very simple principles explain some uses of the apostrophe which otherwise are mysterious:


The hyphen is the short horizontal bar (-) found on all keyboards.

It is not the same as the dash, which is a longer bar which you can often produce by writing two hyphens:

  • A hyphen is written immediately next to the letters on either side of it, e.g.
    • ice-cream, not: ice – cream.
  • A dash is always separated by a word-space from the words on either side, e.g.
    • He forgot — he always does. not: He forgot-he always does.

A hyphen always indicates that the words on either side of it are closely connected.

My mother-in-law came to Jane’s twenty-first wearing a T-shirt that said “Re-elect Fotherington-Thomas”!

There are four main ways of using hyphens:

Full stops in abbreviations

An abbreviation is a short way of writing a word or a phrase that could also be written out in full; for example,

E. Sussex for East Sussex

The general rule is that abbreviations where the first letter or letters are written and the rest of the word is omitted have a full stop at the end.

Prof. for Professor

E. Sussex for East Sussex

B.C. or B.C.E. for Before Christ or before the common era

On the other hand, abbreviations that include the last letter as well as the first do not take a full stop; for example,

Dr for Doctor

Mr for Mister

We also write Mrs and Ms without a full stop, although these are not strictly abbreviations, as there is no other, longer way of writing them.

Some common abbreviations deserve extra attention:

Capital letters

Many words must be written with an initial capital letter. The simplest rule, of course, is that we give an initial capital letter to a name:

Susie, Bill Clinton, Doctor Smith; London, Mars; the Thames, the Alps

However it is not always clear what counts as a name; for example, the noun moon is not a name in itself, but it is a name when it belongs to ‘our’ moon; and similarly for queen:

Several of the planets have moons.

The Moon rises in the East.

A queen is a woman who rules a country.

The Queen lives in Windsor Castle.

Rather inconsistently, we do use capital letters in Wednesday and March, but not in spring; in French but not in maths; and in Walkman but not in xerox.

We also use capital letters on adjectives that are closely linked to names, but not when the link to the name is lost; for example,

  • French people, but french windows
  • the Danish landscape, but danish pastries

Consequently, we don’t use a capital letter for these highlighted words:

One Friday in summer I was watching a television programme about the Greek gods with my mother when I saw the moon through the french windows and it reminded me that I hadn’t done my physics homework.

In short, there is a surprising amount of detail for KS3 pupils to learn in this area.

Auxiliary verbs

The following auxiliary verbs have contracted alternatives:

  • are => ‘re
    • we are => we’re
  • am => ‘m
    • I am => I’m
  • is or has => ‘s
    • she is or she has => she’s
    • who is or who has => who’s
  • will or shall => ‘ll
    • we will or we shall => we’ll
  • had or would => ‘d
    • we had or we would => we’d
  • have => ‘ve
    • you have => you’ve

Some examples of the apostrophe rules

all the boys’ mothers: Why …s’?

  • Because the possessor is all the boys, so we write the apostrophe straight after it: all the boys’;
  • but there’s no extra /z/ in boys – the only /z/ marks the plural – so we don’t write an extra s to give all the boys’s.

Chris’s boat: Why …s’s?

  • Because the possessor is Chris, so we write Chris’;
  • but there is an extra /z/, so we also write an extra s: Chris’s

Its or It’s?

  • It’s is a perfectly regular apostrophe of omission = It is, e.g.
    • It’s mine. = It is mine.
  • Its is a possessive pronoun just like his, so no apostrophe is needed, e.g.
    • His head was lower than its knee.

Whose or who’s?

  • Like it’s, who’s is a perfectly regular apostrophe of omission = Who is
    • Who’s coming? = Who is coming?
  • Like its, whose is a possessive pronoun, like his (but with an odd spelling), so it needs no apostrophe, e.g.
    • He stood by the creature whose knee was higher than his head.

Apple’s or apples?

  • ‘s should only be used for possession, and never for the plural; but it is often seen in public notices signalling the plural, e.g.
    • Apple’s – 3 lb for £1

The four uses of hyphens

Compound words

These are all compound words:

  • blackboard
  • girlfriend
  • T-shirt
  • mother-in-law
  • houseboat
  • house-guest

Some compound words have hyphens, some never do and for some, the hyphen is optional.

These types of compound words are usually written with a hyphen:

  • letter + word
    • T-shirt, X-rays, U-turn
  • head-noun + modifier
    • Court-martial, mother-in-law, secretary-general
  • word + preposition
    • Passer-by, runner-up, summing-up, dressing-down
  • modifier + word with ing/ed/en as ending
    • Hard-working, quick-drying, long-standing; long-legged, blue-eyed, weather-beaten

Linked modifiers

Hyphens may also be used between two words to show that the first modifies the second, in contrast with similar words which both modify some other word:

  • An old-book depository is a place for storing old books.
  • An old book depository is an old building where books are stored.
  • The first-class journey means the excellent or high-price-ticket journey.
  • The first class journey means the first journey the class took together.

The hyphen shows that the first two words belong together (the first modifies the second). In the examples without hyphens, the first and second words both modify the third. The hyphens aid understanding, by telling the reader how words are to be grouped, which helps to avoid ambiguity.

More examples:

  • a last-minute reprieve – not: a last minute reprieve
  • a state-of-the-art design – not a state of the art design
  • two-syllable words – not two syllable words

Numbers and fractions

Numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine have hyphens:

thirty-six, forty-five

twenty-first, thirty-third

But larger numbers don’t:

one hundred and thirty-six

one hundred and twenty-ninth.

All fractions have hyphens:

one-half, two-thirds, five-eighths.


Hyphens with prefixes

A prefix is normally written as one word with what follows it.

subsection, antitoxin, rewrite, prehistoric, unhappy

But sometimes a hyphen is needed:

    • before a capital letter or a numeral:

non-British, anti-American, pre-Roman, pre-1914

    • to help pronunciation:

      co-worker (not coworker)

      pre-empt (not preempt)

      re-elect (not reelect)

      co-operate, co-ordinate (though you will sometimes find cooperate and coordination),

semi-illiterate (not semiilliterate)

    • to avoid ambiguity:

      She re-covered the sofa. [She put a new cover on the sofa.]

She recovered the sofa. [She got the sofa back.]

  • with the prefixes ex, half, quasi and self :

    ex-wife, half-awake, quasi-judicial, self-aware



Abbreviations of Latin words

Here are some of the most common, together with their Latin origins.

i.e. id est that is, in other words
e.g. exempli gratia for example
a.m. ante meridiem before noon, in the morning
cf. conferre compare


I.e. or e.g.?

I.e. and e.g. are not interchangeable; their meanings are very different. They both have the function of linking two ideas, but they link the ideas in different ways. Suppose the two ideas are X and Y.

  • X, i.e. Y means that X and Y are the same, so X = Y. For example:
    • He was parsimonious with the truth – i.e. he lied.
    • The responsibility lies with the relevant authority, i.e. the Board of Governors.

    i.e. generally means the same as ‘in other words’.

  • X, e.g. Y means that Y is an example of X, so X > Y. For example:
    • He treated me badly, e.g. he lied to me.
    • He visited many places, e.g. Edinburgh.
  • e.g. always means the same as ‘for example’.

Units of measurement

These are an exception to the usual rules of abbreviation. In scientific writing, units of measurement are almost always abbreviated, but the abbreviations take neither a full stop nor a plural s.

200 kg for 200 kilograms

5 l for 5 litres

5000 Hz for 5000 Hertz

7.5 g/cm³ for 7.5 grams per cubic centimetre

3 x 105 m/sec for 3 x 105 metres per second

Even in everyday writing, it is common and acceptable to use these abbreviations.

The car was doing 90 mph so it was breaking the speed limit.

Weighing in at 3 kg, the baby was small but healthy.


Comments are closed.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.