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Spelling and punctuation are tools that writers use to communicate ideas and information clearly, avoid ambiguity, and create well-written work.

Errors in your spelling and punctuation might cause your reader to think that your ideas and reasoning are also inexact.


Becoming a more confident speller will speed up your writing, editing and proofreading.  Here are some common errors and tips for improving your spelling:

Suffixes are groups of letters added to the end of a word, for example, -ed, -ful, -ly, -ing, -able and -less.

  • If the base word ends with a silent ‘e’, drop the ‘e’ before adding a suffix that begins with a vowel; for example, tape + ing = taping, advise + ed = advised
  • If the word ends in ‘ce’ or ‘ge’, keep the ‘e’ when you add –ous or -able; for example, marriage + able = marriageable, outrage + ous = outrageous.
  • If a word has only one syllable and ends in a consonant, double the last consonant; for example tap + ed = tapped.

Words with ‘ei’ and ‘ie’

Exceptions to this rule include leisure, height, weight.

Some examples of ‘ei’ words are deceive, receive.

 Commonly Confused Words




to agree to receive or do
not including



to change or make a difference to

a result; to bring about a result



in, or at, a place or time

belonging to several people or things



to suggest indirectly

to draw a conclusion




indicating movement toward

number (2)

also, as well as, adding emphasis




Capital Letters

  • Every sentence must begin with a capital letter.
  • Even when a sentence begins with a number, the number should be written in full and start with a capital: Four thousand people attended the concert. 
  • A proper noun always has a capital. 
  • A common error is to highlight a word in a sentence by giving it a capital letter. Unless it is the first word in the sentence, or a proper noun, this is incorrect. 
Person holding stop sign

Full stops

  • Every sentence must end with a full stop.
  • Also use full stops with some abbreviations. There are many rules and exceptions to this, so it is best to avoid abbreviations in your assignments, and use the full name instead.
  • Where abbreviations are as well-known as the full name (such as FBI, SPCA), you can use these with no full stops.
  • Abbreviations of common Latin terms (e.g., etc., viz., i.e., et al.) should only be used in references and citations.
  • Mr, Mrs, Ms and Dr do not have a full stop, but other titles (Prof., Sgt.) do.
Two women holding a question mark and exclamation mark

Questions and exclamation marks

  • These are also considered to be full stops, but with specific meanings.
  • Use a question mark (?) only at the end of a direct question: Who is responsible for the implementation of the Certificate of Completion and Compliance (CCC)?
  • Be careful not to use a question mark where the question is indirect: The research investigated who is responsible for the implementation of the Certificate of Completion and Compliance (CCC).
  • Use an exclamation mark (!) to indicate strong feelings or high volume. However, as it is usually informal, it is unlikely to have a place in your assignments, unless it is as part of a quote.
Man signing a contact


Lists can be useful in assignments. They help you group together instructions, processes or ideas that would be difficult to read in normal sentence structure.

Use bullets when the items have no particular order. Use numbers when the order is important; for example, step-by-step processes (describing how to do something), hierarchy (most important to least important), or timing (events from most recent).

Here are some examples of list punctuation styles.

There are two commonly-used methods for working at height.

  • Ladders
  • Bamboo scaffolds.


You can also make your introduction a stem sentence, followed by a colon. Each bullet would then start in lower case.

Some examples of commonly-used methods for working at height are:

  • ladders
  • bamboo scaffolds.


This example lists three goals in order of importance. Note that only the final goal has a full stop.

The New Zealand Positive Ageing Strategy identifies three goals:

  1. Income- secure and adequate income for older people
  2. Health- equitable, timely, affordable and accessible health services for older people
  3. Opportunities for Personal Growth and Participation- increasing opportunities for personal growth and community participation.
Calendar with due date circled


Brackets, or parentheses, contain and emphasise content. They are useful for including dates, clarifying information, or providing sources.

When employees and leaders practice accountability, their actions form a habit and routine which eventually becomes a culture within an organization (Freund, 2010, pp.32-36).

Completion of a project that is within budget, meets specifications, and satisfies stakeholders, benefits both the project owner (the developer) and the property buyer.

Muhammed Ali (1942-2016), arguably the greatest athlete of all time, claimed he would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

Man asking a question

Quotation Marks

He asked, “When will you be arriving?” I answered, “Sometime after 6:30.”

Also use quotation marks to indicate a novel, ironic, or reserved use of a word.

History is stained with blood spilled in the name of “justice.”

Two learners connecting

Dashes and hyphens

Dashes emphasise content more strongly than brackets. A dash is not a hyphen. Don’t be tempted to use a hyphen in place of a dash. Learn the keyboard command for an em-dash. In Microsoft Word it is ALT+CTRL+MINUS.

There are two common ways to use hyphens.

  • Where two words are used as a single adjective to qualify a noun, connecting the two with a hyphen helps avoid confusion.

The new system is the first step towards a self-regulated construction industry.

  • Where you have used a prefix that ends in a vowel (such as re, or co), the resulting word may be difficult to read without a hyphen.

The students have re-elected (reelected) Sam as their representative for a second term.



Apostrophes seem to cause more confusion than any other punctuation mark.

There are just three ways you should use an apostrophe.

1: Contractions.

© Ara Institute of Canterbury Ltd
The material contained on this page was created and contributed by Ara Institute of Canterbury Ltd.

Additional Resources

The Smarthinking Writer’s Handbook contains detailed information about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure, with topics that include:

  • Parts of speech (e.g. nouns, personal pronouns, articles etc).
  • Usage (e.g. subject-verb agreement, tenses).
  • Punctuation (e.g. apostrophes, quotation marks, capitalisation)
  • Spelling strategies
  • Tone, voice, and work choice.