Find out how to use punctuation correctly to improve your written work. This resource looks at the most common punctuation forms you will use in academic writing.

Comma (,)

  • For simple lists

    Stakeholders in the project include residents, employees, nearby businesses and investors.

    Note for a simple list of single items, there is no comma needed before ‘and’ (after the second-last item).

  • For complex lists where the grouping of items may be unclear

    This report encompasses professional development, qualifications and upskilling, teaching and learning, and retention.

    Note the use of the comma before the final ‘and’.

  • Where it could be replaced by 'and' or 'or'

    Compare the following: It was a dark, stormy night (dark and stormy)

    It was an Australian red wine. (You cannot say ‘an Australian and red wine’, therefore no comma is required)

  • After an introductory phrase in a sentence

    In November 2005, the committee agreed to a review.

    Further, the study was limited in that it only looked at closed loops.

    However, it must be noted that redundant systems were not a factor in this study.

  • To join complete independent clauses joined by and, or, but, while, yet, therefore, however

    The researcher explained the procedures, however, an issue is that the participants do not always adhere to the guidelines.

    What makes this observation more important is that it is the first time it has been recorded, yet it also represents a clear departure from previous methods.

  • To replace missing words or words that do not need to be repeated.

    The first trial yielded three positive results, but the second, none.

    Note: the word ‘yielded’ is assumed but not needed in the second result.

  • Before direct reported speech

    The Treasurer stated, ‘Hospitals are the responsibility of the states.’

  • Where a section is extra or additional ‘drop in’ information

    Various methods, such as interviews and observations, were used.
    The University of Melbourne, which is in Parkville, is Victoria’s oldest University.

Semi-colon (;)

  • To show a close relationship between two grammatically complete sentences of roughly equal ‘weight’

    Some of the studies seem to confirm the theory; others appear to refute the concept arguing that it is incomplete.

    Often, in these sentences, the semicolon could be replaced with a full stop, but the sentences would be abrupt and not clearly linked.

  • To prevent ‘comma fights’, i.e. to prevent confusion between grouped items

    Where smaller parts of the sentence already contain commas, use a semi-colon to make the separation between them clearer.

    The contributors are Marie Noël, Professor of History; Stephen White, Research Fellow in Media Studies; and Wu Ming, lecturer at the IT Research Institute.

Colon (:)

  • To introduce a complex list

    The research investigated four key areas: the engineering ability of the applicants; the frequency of field opportunities; experience; and whether or not the engineers were learning as a result of these opportunities.

    Note: the role of the semi-colon (;) in separating items within a complex list

    Note: you do not need to use an introductory ‘be’ verb phrase together with a colon, e.g. The research investigated four key areas which were: the engineering …

  • To exemplify, restate, elaborate, explain or balance the preceding part

    There are several reasons for doing a PhD: career advancement, a personal sense of achievement, and development of research skills.

  • For elements of unequal weight, or to intro short phrases

    The report examines one area: students’ transition issues.

Hyphen (-)

  • Used with compound adjectives

    The three-hour exam is set for the following Monday.

    The program requires forty hours full-time study.

    A school-based project was undertaken.

Quotation Marks “double” and ‘single’

  • Use in academic writing

    Quotation marks are most commonly used to indicate direct quotes, i.e. language excerpts taken directly from original work and used in your writing.

    The use of double or single marks varies according to different referencing systems, such as APA and MLA: check a style manual for the referencing system you are using to see whether to use double or single quote marks.

    For all other situations, the rules below are generally applicable in Australia.

  • To note direct speech

    Use single quotation marks to note direct speech (i.e. what someone has said).

    She described the candidate as, ‘highly intelligent and articulate’.

    Note that the quotation marks start and end the quote only, the full stop is in the final position.

Apostrophes (')

  • Used to show possession

    The University of Melbourne’s grounds are extensive.

    A student’s fundamental role in academic writing is to answer the question. 

    (Singular, apostrophe position before s)

    Students’ timetables are available on the LMS.

    (Plural, apostrophe position after s)

    Note: Decades do not require apostrophes, e.g. 1990s, 2000s

  • Used to show contraction (missing letters)

    In academic writing we generally avoid using contractions as they are considered informal (unless the contraction is part of a direct quote or if you have been told informal writing is OK, e.g. for a blog).

    Full forms are preferred in communications, for example, cannot instead of can't, will not instead of won't.

    Usage note: it’s = it is 100% of the time.

    Possessive form is its (e.g. The report is in its fifth iteration.)

Final tip

Accurate punctuation is an essential part of clear expression and assists your reader to understand your exact meaning. The above examples cover the most common situations in which you will use punctuation in academic writing.

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