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Athabasca University

Word Punctuation

Capital Letters

Capital letters are used in the following ways:

  • With the first word of a sentence, of a line of traditional poetry, and of direct speech

    It was the coldest March they’d had in years.

    (traditional poetry)
    I wander through each chartered street,
    Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
    And mark in every face I meet
    Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
    (London, William Blake, 1794)

    (direct speech)
    “What is over there,” Marie asked, “but the bar?” Then she added, “Those guys over there by the pool table haven’t a hope of ever finding work around here.” (Note the capital T beginning Those guys . . .)

  • For names of persons, languages, nationalities, and religions

    (names of persons)
    Peter, Paul and Mary was the name of an American folk trio popular in the 60s.

    French and English are the two official languages of Canada.

    Although Rohit is Indian and a Hindu, he can’t speak Hindi.

    In Canada, the Roman Catholic Church adopted gender-neutral language for its literature several years ago.

  • For titles of people but not positions

    Prime Minister Trudeau was an astute statesman.
    He had never imagined that he would become a prime minister.
    Lord Beaverbrook was much criticized in his day.

  • For points of the compass when referring to a specific region but not when referring to a direction

    He loved the stark, clean beauty of the North.
    When she was down South, she would often visit the old plantations that were east of where she was living.
    The Far East has captured many a writer’s imagination.
    I’m just going north, anywhere north, for my vacation.

  • For the names of days, months, national holidays, and religious celebrations

    Sunday, January, Christmas, Yom Kippur, Ramadan Ash Wednesday, etc.

  • For the names of historical periods and events

    the Dark Ages, the Pliocene Epoch, the French Revolution, the Vietnam War, the Battle of Waterloo, etc.

  • For names of specific organizations

    the House of Commons, the Liberal Party, the Department of Trade and Industry, the United Nations, the Writers’ Guild, Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, etc.

  • For religious terms, deities, and sacred texts

    the Bible, Allah, Buddha, the Virgin Mary, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Koran, etc.

  • For names of studies when they are derived from proper nouns or when they are titles of specific courses

    He did well in Spanish but failed math and history.
    I was never much interested in chemistry and am surprised that Chemistry 269 should be my favourite course.

  • For personifications

    “Shall I believe that insubstantial Death is amorous?” (Romeo and Juliet, 5. 3. 102-103)
    It often seemed to Tasha that her Muse was as skittish and coquettish as a thoroughbred mare.

  • For titles of books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, plays, television programmes, films, works of art, music, and for names of ships, spacecraft and aircraft.

    Sharon was determined to tour the shipping yard where the Titanic had been built.
    The biggest selling print this year was Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.

The Apostrophe

The apostrophe is used in the following ways:

To indicate possession

Note: People often can’t decide whether something is possessive or plural. If the word in question can be replaced by a possessive pronoun, then ’s is required—i.e., it is possessive. For example, should it be “the authors words” or “the author’s words”? It can be re-worded to “his words”, so author’s is required.

Possessive pronouns

  • use ’s with the possessive form of singular nouns

    the girl’s dress
    the woman’s eyes
    Peter’s trousers
    Keats’s poetry
    the Smith’s address
    the book’s binding
    the moon’s glow

  • use ’s with the possessive form of indefinite pronouns

    anybody’s fool
    someone’s coat
    no one’s shoes
    one’s integrity
    everybody’s concern

  • use ’s with plural nouns that do not end in s

    the children’s room
    the men’s wives
    the women’s washroom
    the sheep’s pasture
    people’s rights

  • use ’s with compound nouns

    someone else’s fault
    his brother-in-law’s apartment
    my step-sister’s guitar
    each other’s names
    sisters-in-law’s birthdays (note that sisters is plural)

  • use ’s with the last noun in nouns of joint possession:

    Jill and Bob’s acreage is east of the city. (There is one acreage, and it belongs to both Jill and Bob.)
    Jill’s and Bob’s acreages are east of the city. (There are two—or more—acreages, and they belong to Jill and Bob separately.)
    Andy and Mark’s boats are moored at Lake Wabamum. (There are several boats, and they belong to both Andy and Mark.)
    Andy’s and Mark’s boats are moored at Lake Wabamum. (There are two—or more—boats, and they belong to Andy and Mark separately.)

  • use s’ with plural nouns ending in s

    the girls’ dresses
    the families’ concerns
    the trees’ branches
    the birds’ diet
    the civil servants’ argument

To indicate the omission of a letter or letters, or a number

  • use an apostrophe with contracted verb forms
    can’t (cannot)
    should’ve (should have)
    won’t (will not)
    doesn’t (does not)
    I’ll (I will/I shall)
    he’s (he is/he has)
    they’ve (they have)
    it’s (it is)
  • use an apostrophe to indicate the omission of a letter, letters, or a word
    e’er (ever) (poetic)
    ne’er-do-well (never-do-well)
    o’clock (of the clock)
    o’er (over) (poetic)
    will-o’-the-wisp (will-of-the-wisp)
  • use an apostrophe to indicate the omission of a number
    March 10, ’95
    the summer of ’64
    They discovered gold in ’36.
  • use an apostrophe to indicate dialect speech (it indicates a letter/sound that is omitted)
    “By gosh, I do ’njoy huntin’ and shootin’!” cried his lordship.
    (By gosh, I do enjoy hunting and shooting” . . .)

    “Ah ain’t goin’ t’ da pahdy wi’ Tom,” he drawled. (I’m not going to the party with Tom)

To conform to Modern Language Association (MLA) style


  • use ’s with the plurals of letters but not with the plurals of numbers, abbreviations, or words used as words

    Mind your p’s and q’s.
    The committee must remember to dot its i’s before submitting its proposal for approval by the Board.
    He never closes his o’s, so they often look like u’s.


  • no ’s

    His 4s and 7s look the same.
    Marianne is in her 40s.
    In the 1920s, Europe was keeping a wary eye on events in Russia.

Abbreviations & Acronyms

  • no ’s

    Peter can boast a Ph.D, two M.A.s and three B.A.s.
    The NCOs are meeting for drinks in the club tonight.


  • no ’s

    His essay is full of therefores, howevers, and moreovers, all of which are used incorrectly.
    “And I don’t want any more of your ifs, ands, or buts,” said his mother.

The Hyphen

The hyphen is used in the following ways:

  • To form compound words that are recognized as compounds but have not become accepted as single words


  • To join words that are used as a single adjective before a noun My three-year-old daughter has a mind of her own.

    He’s the new blue-eyed darling of Hollywood.
    The nineteenth-century archeologist did not have the advantage of technology that the modern-day archeologist has.
    Students should keep an up-to-date dictionary at hand.
    The new president promises a value-driven approach to his position.

  • With affixes and words to avoid awkwardness and misreading I’m going to have the wheels of the car re-aligned.

    This cup has a shell-like feel to it.
    He finds that a swim at the end of the day re-energizes him.
    Revenue Canada re-assessed our 1994 tax return and reckoned that we owed $1,000.00.

  • With the prefixes self-, all-, ex-, well-, and with the suffix -elect Lack of self-esteem is the cause of all our ills according to this article.

    Omniscient means all-seeing and omnipotent means all-powerful.
    Her ex-husband has remarried.
    He and his new wife are well-suited.
    The president-elect is expected to purge the administration of incompetent and corrupt managers.

  • To form compound numbers (21-99) and to indicate fractions

    Twenty-one used to be the age of passage.
    Two-thirds of the audience raised their hands when asked whether they would like to organize a local chapter.
    A one-and-a-half kilo bag of sugar cost me $1.50.

  • Between syllables to indicate that the word is continued on the next line

    Because these metals are rare and useful, they are ex-
    A prime minister can request but not demand a dis-
    solution of Parliament.
    The university should plan and budget for, and be com-
    mitted to, a three-semester run of the course.

    Note: Single syllable words cannot be hyphenated in this way, nor can a syllable be split mid-syllable.

    Typical Errors
    Lasers have not been able to take scientists into the re-
    alm of hard x-rays.
    In Angola, the government and the insurgents si-
    gned a peace agreement.
    I enjoyed The Piano; there was one scene I found memo-


For handwritten manuscripts, indicate italics by underlining. Only manuscripts that are printed use italic script.

Italics are used in the following ways:

  • To emphasize a word or phrase

    We want government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
    I have only one rule: never, under any circumstances, presume to give me your advice.
    What he says he’s going to do and what he actually does are two entirely different things.
  • For titles of books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, plays, television programmes, films, works of art, music, and for names of ships, spacecraft and aircraft

    For Christmas, my brother gave me a year’s subscription to The New Yorker.
    Surely the Concorde was the most elegantly designed of all aircraft.
    Laura had never cared for Humphrey Bogart so hadn’t seen Casablanca.
  • For letters and numbers as words in themselves

    Like most Japanese, he can’t distinguish between the sounds l and r.
    I’m sure it’s age that’s causing me to suddenly confuse 6s and 9s.
    The researchers listened to tape-recordings to measure the frequency with which s (as in he likes/she likes) was used by different social classes. (Trudgill, 44)
  • For setting off words used as words (quotation marks can also be used in this way)

    Nothing pleased Arnold so much as using old English words such as barm, dank, and faffing.
    To help EFL students with pronunciation, the teacher did a minimal-pairs exercise with words like it-eat, bit-beat, lick-leak, and so on.
    Awful has completely changed in usage and meaning in the last hundred years, as has the word terrific.
  • For foreign words and phrases that have not become naturalized in English, and also for the Latin scientific names of plants and animals

    He’d already had several deja vu experiences since arriving in Milan.
    Small bindweed (convolvulus arvensis) can often be discovered growing in abandoned parking lots.
    Slit jeans and holey black tights are de rigueur for the high school in-crowd.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

Many abbreviations are becoming increasingly acceptable in every kind of writing. The extent to which a writer uses abbreviations depends on the field and audience for which he or she is writing.

Students writing expository prose for an English course are advised to check with their instructor/marker as to which abbreviations he or she accepts.

The following abbreviations are generally permitted in formal writing:

—and so forth (Latin et cetera)
—for example (Latin exempli gratia)
—that is (Latin id est)
—married woman
—bachelor of arts degree
—master of arts degree
—doctor of philosophy degree
—before Christ
—after Christ
—Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
—the United States of America
—before noon (Latin ante meridiem)
—after noon (Latin post meridiem)
—miles per hour

Acronyms are permitted for the names of agencies, organizations, corporations, and people normally referred to by their initials. The first reference should make it clear what the acronym stands for: for example, “The YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) has put in a new fitness centre.”

Agencies: FBI, CIA
Organizations: YWCA, UN, IRA
Corporations: IBM, CBC, BBC
People: JFK, FDR, JR


Whether a writer uses words or figures in his or her writing depends on the conventions of the field for which the writer is writing. Students are advised to observe writings from different fields, to check in style manuals published for those fields, and to remain consistent with whatever conventions they choose. Needless to say, students writing a paper for an English course will use more words than figures than will a student writing a paper for a science course.

The following conventions are guidelines for students writing expository prose:


  • For numbers less than one hundred and for numbers requiring no more than two words

    Despite the million he had tucked away, Mullins wouldn’t part with a dime, let alone the thousand his daughter needed to get into college.
    Research shows that babies of women who smoke more than twenty cigarettes a day during pregnancy weigh, on average, six ounces less than the babies of women who do not smoke.
    In those days, having six children was considered normal.

  • For numbers used at the beginning of a sentence

    Eighty-five dollars was a lot for a horse in those days.
    Two hundred and sixteen airmen dropped to their deaths that night.
    Seven and four are considered lucky numbers in many cultures.


  • For dates and addresses
    Dates Addresses
    July 1, 1867
    10 March, 196

    1485 - 1509
    4 B.C. - 30 A.D.
    87 Orchard Drive
    R. R. 3, T6K 4W6
    P.O. Box 1000
    Apt. 106, 9105 - 106 St.
  • For exact measurements

    Act, scene, and line numbers:    Coriolanus, 1.6. 32-39
    Decimals:   .01   6.4   17.012
    Exact amounts of money:   $2.48   $197.80   $6.07
    Identification numbers:   Channel 13   Highway 2   SIN 249-216-293
    Mixed numbers and fractions:   1¾   32½   5¼
    Numbers followed by symbols or abbreviations:   10 cu. ft.   20 sq. yds.   740 Hz
    Percentages:   50%   26%   94%
    Scores, statistics, ratios, etc.:   Odds of 10-1   score of 3-2   ratio of 1:33
    Times:   8:40   2.20   but six o’clock
    Volume, chapter, and page numbers:   Volume 2   Chapter 4   page 160

Contracted Verb Forms

Contracted verb forms are the norm in spoken and informal written English. However, in academic writing, contracted forms should be avoided. It is never wrong to use full verb forms in formal, expository prose.

If the government had taken heed of earlier research, the fish-stocks would not have become so depleted. (formal)
If the government’d taken heed of earlier research, the fish-stocks wouldn’t’ve become so depleted. (informal)
The communitarian movement is not a political party like the Green Party; it is an informal association of like-minded people. (formal)
The communitarian movement’s not a political party like the Green Party; it’s an informal association of like-minded people. (informal)
The coordinator will be submitting a report which will provide details of her role in the project. (formal)
The coordinator’ll be submitting a report which’ll provide details of her role in the project. (informal)

Errors with Contracted Verbs

Beware of phonetic spelling. We are very used to hearing, but many of us are not so used to seeing, contracted verb forms.

They would have left the party had their car started. (formal)
They would’ve left the party had their car started. (informal)
They would of left the party had their car started. (incorrect)
Without the tutor, Sheila would not have passed the course. (formal)
Without the tutor, Sheila wouldn’t’ve passed the course. (informal)
Without the tutor, Sheila wouldn’t of passed the course. (incorrect)
If I had known you were coming, I would have prepared something. (formal)
If I’d known you were coming, I’d’ve prepared something. (informal)
If I’d of known you were coming, I’d’of prepared something. (incorrect)
You should not have lied. (formal)
You shouldn’t’ve lied. (informal)
You shouldn’t of lied. (incorrect)

Updated April 10 2017 by Student & Academic Services

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