English documents tend to use these types of punctuation:

  • periods
  • apostrophes
  • brackets of various kinds
  • colons and semicolons
  • commas
  • dashes and hyphens
  • ellipsis
  • exclamation and question marks
  • quotation marks
  • slashes

Some software, such as word processors, will attempt to automatically handle and properly typeset punctuation, but with TeX, everything is done manually. One must be careful in placing such punctuation in a document. There are two issues:

  • Some punctuation requires special symbols before and after, depending on the situation, to ensure they are placed correctly in the document.
  • Some punctuation is easily confused with other, similar punctuation.

Here are some examples:


Mr.\ Green ate lunch at approx.\ 10:45.


Mr.\ Green (1950--1999) always ate three fish sandwiches for lunch.

Generally, style guides do not consider such small details, however, TeX offers such control which the authors of these guides may have overlooked.

  • In addition to the recommendations above, about the proper typesetting of periods and hyphens, what other special considerations must one take when typesetting the other punctuation in various situations with TeX?
  • Has anyone compiled a comprehensive list which details the best method of typesetting the various forms of punctuation typically found in English-language documents?
  • 4
    ~ is used to provide an unbreakable space. – user11232 May 10 '12 at 9:34
  • 4
    The tilde is unbreakable and should be placed between words which should not be broken, e.g. Dr.~Knuth. You should place a \ after a dot which is not a fullstop, for example after e.g.\ this and that. This is not required if you are using \frenchspacing. – Martin Scharrer May 10 '12 at 9:40
  • 14
    I would urge you to re-post your question in English.SX. A complete list of the type you're interested in will depend crucially on whether you need to follow UK or US English puctuation conventions. Alright, other English-speaking countries may also have their own punctuation conventions, but it's fair to say that they tend to follow either the US or the UK model. The UK model is to omit the period ("full stop") after most abbreviations, whereas the US model takes the more traditional approach. Viz.: a.m., p.m., i.e., e.g., Mr., Mrs., Messrs., etc., etc. – Mico May 10 '12 at 10:16
  • 7
    Just a small correction, the full stop in british english tends to be used after abreviations made of a truncation of the original word and is not used when the abreviation is made of letters from that word. for example "Prof." for Professor but "Dr" for Doctor. – ArTourter May 10 '12 at 12:06
  • 1
    Something English style guides will not mention: abbreviations such as "i.e." and "e.g." look ugly both without a space and with a full space between them. I always typeset them as "e.\,g.\ " which is borrowed from German typography but looks just as good in English. – Christian May 16 '12 at 14:40
up vote 10 down vote accepted

To answer your question properly, one must first distinguish style from typesetting. It follows that there are two aspects for which you seek an answer.

  1. The first is the Style. As you mention many style guides do not go into great detail about the whithertos and whyfores of the typesetting process. In this way they define the general act of punctuation, in which intonation and logical pauses are indicated (where to place a period, and when to use square brackets, etc.). For answers to such questions I shall direct you to the appropriate style guide, or your general appreciation for structure and locution.

  2. But for the second, the typesetting, I shall address your question more directly. Typesetting is an art, pure and simple. It is an act in which you set the above structure–of alphabetic prose and an-alphabetic structure (punctuation)–into an attractive form. This may seem a little high handed, but a typesetting system, such as TeX, provides characters, and it is up to you or, more commonly, macros to define where TeX is to place which character.

For a "comprehensive list which details the best method of typesetting the various forms of punctuation" I would direct you to the following;

  1. James Felici, The Complete Manual of Typography.
  2. Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style.

Typesetting is a process in which you are trying to get the right characters separated by the appropriate amount of space, so practically speaking in TeX you simply write which characters you want, and adjust space accordingly (by choosing different "spacing" characters when required). Sometimes this is done for you by the TeX engine. With what you have mentioned you are pretty close to all the basics required for typesetting most documents, the particular examples you give are required because of some default macros in TeX. This process is aided a lot by many modern fonts, which have great kerning and, if you have Xelatex, OpenType features which aid a lot in making contextual decisions for spacing on your behalf. What I have listed below is a good-enough-list of how to typeset punctuation in TeX.

Periods A period is a period, period. However, typesetting a period has more to do with the spaces around it. Tex assumes that a period which is preceded by a lower-case letter is the end of a sentence. To prevent this, say in an abbreviation, use, as you mentioned above, etc.\ and. If a upper-case letter ends a sentence, use THE END\@. Using these macros allows for sentence spacing to be adjusted by your style (i.e. \frenchspacing). However, there may be times when you wish for larger or smaller spaces, thus when writing an initialled name, your write J.\,M.~Smith, which gives a thin space between initials, and a non-breaking space between that and the surname.

\,     thin space (normally 1/6 of a quad);
\>     medium space (normally 2/9 of a quad);
\;     thick space (normally 5/18 of a quad);
\!     negative thin space (normally 1/6 of a quad);
\quad  quad space (a quad).

Hyphens and Dashes There are three main forms of this. The hyphen is used to indicate a conjoined word, or is used at the end of a line to indicate the word continues on the next line, use the basic hyphen for this. The en-dash is used to indicate range, this is written in TeX by two consecutive hyphens, -- or textendash. An em-dash is used to indicate a parenthetical clause/phrase (which, if removed does not interrupt the sentence), this is written in TeX by three consecutive hyphens, --- or \textemdash. Some fonts include characters for a minus sign \textminus, and others such as a figure dash.

Ellipsis is either written by three periods separated by spaces .~.~. (some style-guides require larger spaces, ~ enforces nnon-breaking spaces), or by using the \ldots character which is three periods condensed into one character. Alternatively you may use medium spaces between the periods, .\>.\>..

Quotation Marks There are two types of quotation marks, and both have a single and double variants. The basic form is the "typewriter" froms, written in TeX with simply the ' and Shift+' key combinations. Though in normal prose you will prefer the "curly" quotation marks, entered by the use of ` and `` for left/open quotes, and ' and '' for right/closing quotes.

Special characters often need "escaping" simply because they are used for special purposes: \%, \$, \&, \#, \_, \{, \}. You cau use puctuation marks and basic mathematical symbols without restriction. For a backslash, use \textbackslash.

Apostrophes, Parentheses, Colons, Semicolons, Commas, Exclamation and Question Marks All of these are pretty basic in TeX, you simply type them in. When and how to use them should be suggested by your style-guide and grammar. (I think TeX automatically converts an ' [apostrophe] into a single right quote?)

  • 1
    \/ does not escape a slash; it produces "italic correction". – Lover of Structure Feb 8 '13 at 8:04

You raise a few interesting questions, however your statement that other software handle the full breadth of punctuation typesetting automatically is incorrect. This depends on the in-house style used.

Has anyone compiled a comprehensive list which details the proper method of typesetting all forms of punctuation typically found in English-language documents?

The most comprehensive lists, with a lot of exceptions can be found in the various Style Guides, such as the Oxford, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, CBE Manual etc, the European Union Style Guide and many others.

Take for example the simple case of an honorific such as PhD or a name with a Jr ending; you get the following recommendations:

MLA               Chicago                WIT              CBE

PhD               Ph.D.                  Ph.D.            PhD
John Smith, Jr.   John Smith Jr.         John Smith, Jr.  John Smith Jr

As a matter of interest none of the above guides offers suggestions as to the spacing of the dots (thin spaces etc).

Sometime back I tried to use TeX to enforce style, but it became too cumbersome to use,

First you create a DB to hold all the styles:

% create newif
\expandafter\newif\csname if@\next\endcsname
\expandafter\edef\csname @\next\endcsname{@\next}


Then you define commands for common usages such as \phd

  \if@MLA PhD\fi
  \if@CM Ph.D. \fi
  \if@WIT Ph.D.\fi
  \if@CBE PhD\fi

In your document you use @MLAtrue to pick up the style book and use the relevant commands as you go along.

Best advice, pick up a Style Book that is widely accepted in your specialty and study it. Consistency is the key rather than particular fast and hard rules. You may find of interest the "rules of composition" which Tschischold implemented at Penguin books and with millions of Penguin books published (with Tschischold involved in about 500), you cannot go wrong. Here is a summary relating to punctuation:

  1. Put thin spaces before question marks, exclamation marks, colons, and semicolons. (TeX does ok here).

  2. Between initials and names, as in G. B. Shaw and after all abbreviations where a full point is used, use a smaller (fixed) space than between the other words in the line. In most cases in LaTeX publications such names are references and are handled correctly by packages such as BibLaTeX, otherwise some manual intervention is necessary, including putting the name in an hbox if you do not want it to break at line endings.

  3. Marks of omission should consist of three full points. These should be set without any spaces, but be preceded and followed by word spaces. \ldots is ok here and don't place them at the end of sentences so you do not need to argue with anyone if it should be three dots plus a full stop.

  4. Use full points sparingly and omit after these abbreviations: Mr, Mrs, Messrs, Dr, St, WC2, 8vo, and others containing the last letter of the abbreviated word.

  5. Use single quotes for a first quotation and double quotes for quotations within quotations. If there is still another quotation within the second, return to single quotes. Punctuation belonging to a quotation comes within the quotes, otherwise outside.

  6. Opening quotes should be followed by a hairspace except before A and J. Closing quotes should be preceded by a hairspace except after a comma or a full point. If this cannot be done on the keyboard, omit these hairspaces, but try to get the necessary attachment. (Let TeX handle this for you).

  7. When long extracts are set in small type do not use quotes. Use parentheses () for explanation and interpolations; brackets [] for notes. For all other queries on spelling, consult the Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, or Collins's Authors' and Printers' Dictionary.

As for hyphens let TeX do its job lest you incite another hyphen war.

up vote 25 down vote

This question is rather broad, and while I completely agree with Yiannis Lazarides about style related issues, I will try to give some answers to the questions that are not usually dealt with in style books, as well as some generic answers for those who are not required to use a specific style.

Abbreviations are usually provided for in style guides, but in case they are not, here are some rules:

  • americans tend to omit the period in all abbreviations, which will result in: USA, Prof, Dr, Sgt (Sergeant);
  • brits usually put a period in abbreviations that were made by truncation, resulting in: U.S.A. and Prof. but Dr and Sgt (because the abbreviation contains the last letter of the word);
  • putting a period after a word that is not truncated, as is sometimes done by americans who do use periods (Dr., Sgt.) is simply wrong, but you should indeed do it if your style requires it;
  • you will find many americans who put periods and many brits who don't, and you will find even more people and styles that recommend a hybrid rule (e.g. using periods for abbreviations but not for acronyms), so this isn't a hard and fast rule;
  • some abbreviations will never take a period, no matter what set of rules you are using: they include measurement units (in for inch, cm for centimetre, kg for kilogram, etc.) and chemical symbols (Ca for calcium, Au for gold).

As for periods at the end of abbreviations, I will direct you to Will Robertson's article, which is the best explanation I have found on the subject. In summary, you should use:

% '\@' after the period signifies it is not an end of sentence
Prof.\@ Jones

% '\@' between a capital letter and a period signifies that it is an end of sentence
… said Mr X\@. Later, …

If you are creating your own macros to ease the work, you should make sure they look ahead for the next character and thus avoid putting double periods. The abbreviation dot should further be set in the same style as the abbreviated word. This can be done using a macro such as this one:


Hyphens (-) should generally be used inside compound words (See: Correct use of hyphen, en dash, or em dash in compound words, although it is sometimes possible to use an en-dash (--) to mark a comparison or opposition between the words, or simply to denote a gradation (i.e. when you want to combine a compound word and another word). Hyphens are also used for hyphenation, indeed.

Similarly, an en-dash (--) can be used to indicate a range (numbers, dates, pages); in that case, it should not be surrounded by spaces (See: Dashes: - vs. – vs. —).

Both the em-dash (---) and the en-dash (--) can be used to indicate a digression, or a break in the sentence (voluntary ellipsis) or a dialogue. Two rules then apply:

  • pick one of them and stick to it;
  • the em-dash should not be surrounded by spaces, while the en-dash should (on that point, see below).

Brackets are can be used to mark a digression (though dashes are much more elegant) or, more appropriately, to denote a parenthesis (i.e. an explanation of secondary importance) or a citation. Some styles will require nested brackets to alternate between the normal form and the square form.

Square brackets ([]) can also be seen in some citation formats, and in order to denote omissions or the author's own incursion while quoting something. Whether to use them or normal brackets depends on styles.

Slashes are used to mark the existence of alternatives, as a substitute for "or"; while common in english, they are not necessarily good practice, and not all typographers encourage their use. Their original and proper use in in fractions, or in some ratios that are written with that sign.

They do not seem to require any special spacing, however I notice that Bringhurst has put spaces around them (p. 33) when used as a substitute for "or" (but not when they are properly used, e.g. when writing a font size and leading: "11/13"). In the former case, I would think either a thin space (\thinspace or \,) or a normal space would do.

The ellipsis sign (...) is used to mark an omission, typically inside a quotation; it is a poor replacement for "etc." in an enumeration and should be avoided in that case. The least that can be done is to use \ldots (see: Ellipsis with a period/fullstop) or typeset the correct UTF-8 character (XeLaTeX for instance). The ellipsis should be surrounded with spaces, especially if it follows an existing punctuation mark. You may also consider using the ellipsis package or setting your own macro, depending on your style guide's requirements – some styles require the use of brackets or square brackets, for instance.

There are no rules that I know of regarding apostrophes, which are mainly used to indicate elision (i.e. the omission of a sound) in english. Note however that, strange as it may be, this sign's spacing varies tremendously across fonts and some will simply look better than others. The spacing of apostrophes is especially important if you intend to write some text in other languages that do not use the apostrophe in the same way (for instance, french uses it between words and hence requires a larger spacing).

Because it can be used in macros, it would be unwise to make this sign active in order to correct its spacing, so pick your font well if you are using any language other than english.

The same advice essentially applies to quotation marks (choose the font well if you intend to use any language other than english). There are no special rules there either, except that:

  • americans tend to use double marks (“”) for the main quotation, and single marks for nested quotations (‘’);
  • brits do the opposite.

You can typeset the real, curly quotes directly in XeLaTeX, if you do not want to have to type `` and ''.

To my knowledge, english has no special rules regarding periods, commas, colons, semicolons, interrogations marks and exclammation marks. Their correct usage would really be off topic here and I won't get into it. They are not preceded by anything, and they are followed by a normal space. However, you should know that:

  • in american english, the punctuation belongs to the quotation, parenthesis or digression, especially if it is a period or a comma, and should hence be placed inside the quotation marks, brackets or dashes;
  • in british english, the opposite rule applies;
  • in both traditions, "high" punctuation marks (:, ;, ? and !) can be placed inside or outside the quotation marks, brackets or dashes depending on the context (e.g., if there is a question in a dialogue, brits will put the quotation mark inside, and if a quotation appears inside a question, americans will put the interrogation mark outside the quotation marks).

The "rule" according to which end of sentence punctuation marks should be followed by a space larger than the inter-word space is outdated and has no reason to be enforced any longer, although some styles do want it. It can be removed by calling:


Another statement could perhaps be made regarding quotations, parentheses and digressions. In english, there is no special rule about their spacing, and you will find that these punctuation signs can start a line, or even a page, in most books (including Bringhurst's).

The french have a somewhat different stand on that, and since applying it in english can't hurt, I will state that rule. The basic idea is that a line should never start with a disruptive sign such as: a number, a quotation mark, a bracket or a dash; hence it is recommended to put a tie (~) before an opening quotation mark, an opening bracket and an en-dash indicating a digression (both at the beginning and at the end of the digression). However, I think that if applied at all, this rule should be seen as secondary, i.e. it shouldn't be used if it causes an underfull hbox or a bad line-break (which can happen with long words).

There are contradictory recommendations on that matter, especially as regards en-dashes: some typographers recommend to put ties outside the dashes and normal spaces inside, so that the digression is "framed" and stands out more in case of a line break. Hence, this is largely a matter of personal choice and consistency (unless your citation style says anything about it).

  • 1
    It appears that csquotes + babel can be helpful for dealing with quotation differences mentioned, that "in AmE the punctuation belongs to the quotation...In BrE, the opposite rule applies". – Jodi Schneider Jul 26 '13 at 10:29
  • 1
    Yes, it should. Thanks for pointing it out. – ienissei Jul 27 '13 at 19:45

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