What is a period or full stop?

Full stops are a form of period that finalises a sentence (.). Other forms include the exclamation point (!) and the question mark (?). These ubiquitous punctuation marks signify to the reader when a sentence is about to end (as the eye scans ahead to locate the dot), making the words easier to follow.

Writers should always use a full stop at the end of a full sentence (with the exception of non-paragraph text as discussed below).

Use a question mark at the end of a question. Use an exclamation mark sparingly.

An exclamation mark is for signifying shouting in dialogue. It is unnecessary to use exclamation points in non-fiction writing unless your words don’t stand up for themselves. That being the case, work on the words that are too weak, and leave out the exclamation marks.

Non-paragraph text

If you're looking for rigid rules about periods in non-paragraph text, you've just found a fantastic guide, however some flexibility will be needed to suit all types of text.

Here's the simple explanation:
Do not use a full stop on non-paragraph text unless there's more than one sentence.

This rule can be modified to suit different texts and the key is to decide on a rule, understand it, and implement it as globally as possible.

If you feel that the phrase will be confusing (read poorly), be grammatically incorrect, be noticeably inconsistent or look strange without a full stop, then add one.

Here's the more complex explanation:
It isn't possible to have absolute rules in relation to periods that will apply to all cases and types of writing. If you want your book, website, magazine, article, DVD, etc. to be as consistent as possible, a good rule to follow is what we call ‘NPT2’.

Paragraph Text (PT) is usually two or more sentences sitting together or one after the other in the same text section. A paragraph can (rarely) have one sentence, but it is usually identifiable by being preceded by and/or followed by another paragraph. Non-paragraph Text (NPT) is often, but not always, found in:

  • Titles
  • Headings
  • Bulleted lists
  • Numbered lists
  • Table cells
  • Credits
  • References and bibliographies
  • Footnotes and end notes
  • Captions
  • Block quotes
  • Pull quotes
  • Boxes
  • Glossaries
  • Appendices
  • Definitions

The above kinds of text are often seen without periods at the end, but how do you decide? Use rule ‘NPT2’.

Rule NPT2
Non-paragraph text with two or more sentences per bullet or cell needs to include a full stop at the end.

You would not normally see full stops at the end of sentences in a cookbook (e.g. in the instructions or ingredients list). However, you might like to add a full stop at the end of a table cell that contains two sentences. The first sentence has a full stop, so the second one should as well.

In the same table, you might see other pieces of text without any periods because they are not in full sentences or because there is only one sentence. It would be acceptable not to add a full stop on any non-paragraph text (e.g. a single sentence inside a single table cell). It is not inconsistent to do this because the rule is to only use a full stop when there is more than one sentence.

Grey area of NPT2
If any given section of non-paragraph text would look strange without full stops, include them. Do this even if made up of bullets or cells of one sentence only. In the case of captions, block quotes, pull quotes, boxes, glossaries and appendices, they should have full stops even if they only consist of one sentence. Some lists may be easier to follow if they contain full stops even though they consist of only one sentence in most points. The writer and/or editor will need to make a judgement call. If this section of bullet points overall looks like paragraphs of text (e.g. large amounts of text per bullet even though they are only one sentence each), it would look strange without full stops. So include them.

Remember: any points that do not contain a sentence at all should not have a period at the end.

These subtleties of periods in non-paragraph text, and the bending of the rules, are a good example of why you need to engage at least one editor for at least one round of editing.

If you care enough about the grammatical accuracy and consistency of your piece of text to read this article, then multiple rounds of editing are called for.

Please contact me for details.

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