Jane Birkenhead, February 6 2023

Punctuation for TOEFL and IELTS Essay Writing

There are some English punctuation and formatting rules that you need to know for TOEFL and IELTS essay writing. However, if you Google English punctuation you will find many articles with long explanations about things that aren't important for these exams. Please don't spend hours looking at articles that explain punctuation in great detail. You don't need that level of specialized knowledge for TOEFL or IELTS. 

If you're unsure of any of the rules associated with this punctuation, then ask your teacher for help. They will be able to quickly find resources to help you.

Also, you should understand that a lot of advice for using punctuation symbols is stylistic. That means there are sometimes alternative rules for the punctuation, and their use will depend on your audience.

Here then is a summary of the main punctuation symbols that you do need to know when you're writing essays for TOEFL or IELTS. I've started with punctuation that you will need to use in your essays, and so you should be confident using it. Then I've added punctuation that you may not need, but you will see it in the reading part of essay questions, so you should recognize it and know what it means.

Essential Punctuation

Periods or Full Stops

This punctuation mark is straightforward. You use a period (full stop) to indicate the end of a sentence. 

You only need to put one space after a period (full stop). You might see two spaces in old documents, and some older writers still use two spaces, but one space has been the standard for many years now.


If you're typing your essay, press return twice when you get to the end of a paragraph. This will leave a blank line between your current paragraph and your next paragraph. If you're hand-writing your essay, leave a blank line between paragraphs on your paper.

This is now the convention for formatting paragraphs. The empty line means that your essay will be easier to read.

If you add a blank line between paragraphs, you don't need to use indents. (These are when you add a few spaces at the beginning of the first line.) Indents used to be part of normal paragraph formatting but now they look old fashioned.


Many students ask for advice about using commas. This area is where general articles about punctuation go into a lot of detail but be aware that a lot of that advice is stylistic. This means there are sometimes alternative rules for using commas so you should follow the guidelines of whoever you are writing for. 

In TOEFL and IELTS essay writing, we mainly use commas:

The two biggest errors associated with commas that I see in essays are:

If you're unsure what any of these terms mean, then ask your teacher to explain them specifically in a TOEFL or IELTS context.

Punctuation to Recognize

Colons and Semicolons

Colons are used to introduce an item or a series of items, often as a list. You shouldn't be writing lists in your essays so you don't need to worry about them for your essay writing.

Semicolons are most commonly used to link two connected independent clauses. If you are a confident writer, and you know how to use them, you may find a way to incorporate them into your TOEFL or IELTS essays. But it is not necessary to do so  and it's better to leave them out than to use them incorrectly.

Quotation marks 

These are also called speech marks and inverted commas. They are used to indicate direct speech. It is highly unlikely that you will need to use them in TOEFL or IELTS essays.


Parentheses are sometimes called brackets. Technically there is a difference between the two, but it's so unrelated to TOEFL and IELTS that we don't need to worry about it here.

Parentheses are used to include additional, less important information about something you've written. It is not necessary to use them in TOEFL or IELTS essays.

Explanation Points (Marks) and Question Marks

Explanation points (marks) and question marks are also used to indicate the end of a sentence.

Explanation points (marks) are used to emphasize something or express surprise. As both TOEFL and IELTS require a formal writing tone, I do NOT recommend the use of these in your essays.

You shouldn't have any need to use a question mark in either TOEFL or IELTS task 1 writing.

You may decide to include a rhetorical question in task 2 but this would be your stylistic choice. It's not necessary and you'd have to be a confident writer to do this.


If you're still confused about punctuation or formatting, then get someone to help you. But make sure you focus specifically on punctuation that's used in TOEFL or IELTS writing.

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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