Punctuation Usage

I recently edited a novel where the author used a lot of broken dialogue, interrupted dialogue, and phrasing that often served as side notes in her sentences. For the most part, she had treated each situation with commas or an occasional dash. Because of this, much of the writing tended to run together, without distinctiveness to the sentences. After polishing it up with proper punctuation, her words took on a whole new flair. It’s amazing what the right little marks in your sentences can do for your writing!

Today I’d like to take a look at a constant source of frustration for many writers: differentiating between the use of hyphens, dashes, and commas.

Hyphens: The most common uses for hyphens are to combine compound words (toll-free number), to divide words at the end of a line of text, and to separate numbers or letters (as in a phone number, or when spelling out a word). Hyphens are also used when the second part of  a compound term is omitted (five- or ten-year loan) and often when writing web addresses. For the most part, these are the only times hyphens should be used, if you want to be punctuationally correct (I know punctuationally isn’t really a word, but it works here!).

Typically, instead of a hyphen, what you really want is a dash. There are several forms of dashes (really!), but the two most commonly used are the en dash and em dash.

En dash: This dash is so named because it is the width of a capital N. If you’re using MS-Word, you can insert it by going to the Insert tab on your tool bar, clicking on Symbols, then Special Characters, then En Dash (the 2nd from the top of the list). Since WordPress will not allow me to properly construct an en dash, it will be signified here by two hyphens (–).

Why do you need the en dash, you ask? Several reasons…

Properly used, the en dash will connect inclusive numbers and dates (1996–1999), as well as times (12:00–2:00). It can also be used for inclusive chapters: In the book of Matthew 6–9…

It is also used for to/from destinations: the Miami–Boston flight; or for scores of games: The Cubs finally won, 10–4.

If you do use an en dash, you would not use the phrase “to…from” and vice-versa. For instance, you would say either “The meeting is from 10 to 2,” or  “The meeting is 10–2”; not: “The meeting is from 10–2.”

Em dash: This is the dash most of us think of when we refer to “the dash.” It is so named because it is the width of a capital M. It is constructed the same way in MS-Word as the en dash, except it is found at the top of the list under Special Characters. For our purposes here, I will use 3 hyphens to signify the em dash (—).

The em dash is extremely versatile, often taking the place of commas and colons. Instead of giving commas their own category on this post, I will talk about them here in relation to the em dash, since they are most often misused in this regard.

Perhaps the most common use for em dashes within sentences is when there is an abrupt break in thought:

I am going to the basketball game—even though it’s going to be a blowout—just to appease him.

Often, writers would simply surround that side-note phrase with commas; and, in some cases that can work. In this type of usage, the em dash and the commas may be interchangeable. The test is to see how strong of a statement you want to make with your phrase that is breaking through your sentence. If it’s just a minor aside, then use commas. But if it’s a phrase that you really want to stand out and show its strength in the sentence, you’ll need the em dash.

Em dashes are also correctly used for broken or omitted dialogue:

“I told her she could go with me, but —“

“But what?” Megan replied hastily.

In another case of em dash vs. comma, consider the following sentences:

A laptop, a toothbrush, a change of clothes, that is all she packed for her overnight trip.

A laptop, a toothbrush, a change of clothes—that is all she packed for her overnight trip.

How much stronger and more readable with the em dash instead of the comma! The rule here is that whenever you have an introductory phrase that somehow introduces what follows it—another way of saying this is that an explanatory phrase follows the introductory phrase–the em dash is typically used.

To summarize the use of the em dash, use it for broken phrases or dialogue and in places of commas for a stronger statement or to avoid confusion if you are using several commas to compose a list. Not only is such usage technically correct, but varied use of punctuation will make your writing more interesting and help indicate your areas of emphasis.

My challenge to you is to review your writing and see where you could possibly replace commas with em dashes. Also, look over any inclusive numbers, dates, times, and so forth and replace your hyphens with en dashes. Remember, there are only a few places where hyphens are truly appropriate, so make sure you haven’t misused them in your writing.

I’m convinced that one of the most troublesome pieces of punctuation for people (wow…that was some alliteration!) is when, where, and why to hyphenate. When I first started proofreading for publishers, I think this one area gave me fits more than any other. And, just when I think I had a hyphenation rule figured out, I’d learn an exception to that rule!

So, I’ve put together a short list to hopefully help alleviate you of some of the frustration I faced. These are some basic guidelines, but be aware that exceptions do exist. And, while dictionaries are good for confirming whether or not a word or phrase should be hyphenated, they won’t help you when it comes to general principles. For that I would suggest consulting some form of style manual (Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Manual of Style, for example).

1. Think in terms of clarity. If a word could possibly be misread if left unhyphenated, then it should have a hyphen. One example is coop (as in chicken) vs. co-op. Many terms over the years have morphed from hyphenated to closed, such as web-site, which is now almost always written as website. One reason for this change in publishing is because it takes up less space. I realize that one hyphen doesn’t account for much space by itself, but over the course of a magazine article or book, they can. And space is money if it’s not online (that word also used to be hyphenated, by the way).

2. Sometimes used with prefixes. For the most part, nearly all prefixes are written without hyphenating, but there are some exceptions. The word self is always hyphenated before another word (except in the case of selfless); the prefixes pre or post are typically not hyphenated unless they are used before a proper noun (pre-Civil War era or post-World War II); the prefix co will be hyphenated only to avoid confusion in reading. Most other prefixes are written as closed, but be sure to check in the dictionary to be certain you’re not dealing with an exception.

3. Use with compound modifiers before a noun. This rule probably trips writers up more than any other when it comes to hyphenation. So, if you have a phrase with an adjective and a noun (open  + space, for instance), and put that phrase before another noun, it would become hyphenated: open-space park. Likewise, if you have an adverb that does not end in ly combined with an adjective (well + known), it would also become hyphenated before a noun: well-known actor.

But … (you knew that was coming, right?), adverbs that do end in ly never get hyphenated (highly paid actor). I don’t believe there are exceptions to this rule. This hyphenation rule only applies when the modifiers appear before the noun. So, you would say “well-known actor” but “the actor was well known.”

4. Use with adjectives or adverbs when combined with participles before a noun. Similar to the above rule, you would say “open-ended question” (adjective and participle) but “the question was open ended.” And, you would say “much-needed attention” (adverb and participle), but “the attention was much needed.”

5. Use when part of a hyphenated term is omitted. In an expression such as: “I can’t decide whether to go with the twenty- or thirty-year mortgage,” twenty keeps the hyphen because it still forms a compound with year mortgage.

6. Use with fractions. Fractions will always be hyphenated whether they appear as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.

7. Use with compound adjectives or adjectival phrases before a noun. This would include the forms of ordinal numbers, colors, and age terms. Examples include: First-floor window, three-year-old dog, black-and-white dress, over-the-counter drug. Remember that these same phrases will not be hyphenated if used after the noun.

OK, well I think that’s probably enough hyphenation rules for one day! Believe me when I say, however, there are many more. Again, be sure to check a dictionary for specific examples, but be aware you may not find everyone you need. And, spell checker will definitely not catch these for you. If this is an area you struggle with, I would highly suggest investing in a good style guide, which will have every possible rule along with its exception. This is one of the most-worn sections (notice the hyphenation there!) of my style guide, to be sure!

How is it that such a tiny mark in our English language can cause so much confusion? Today I’d like to take a closer look at the proper use of commas as well as an improper use in hopes to eliminate some of that confusion. Here are just a few do’s and dont’s of commas usage:

1. Do use a comma to introduce a quote: He said, “Let’s go to dinner.”

Do not use a comma to introduce a maxim or proverb: The phrase “In God we trust” can be found on our money.

2. If a comma is needed in a sentence with a parenthetical phrase, it always goes after the closing parenthesis:

Be sure to bring food, a sleeping bag, a coat (if it’s cold outside), and a flashlight to the campsite.

3. Always use a comma before and after a state or country name if a city name immediately precedes it: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but have lived in many other places.

4. Do use a comma after an introductory phrase: Before leaving on the plane, the passengers were thoroughly searched. Exceptions to this include very short introductory phrases as well as those cases where there would be no misreading of the sentence if there wasn’t one.

Do not use a comma for introductory phrases that are immediately followed by a verb: Before the doorway stood a looming figure.

5. Do use a comma with coordinate adjectives, which are adjectives that can be reversed in order and can be joined by the word and and still make sense: It was a very dry, cold winter.

Do not use a comma with adjectives that cannot be reversed in order or that no longer make sense when joined with and: She word a long yellow dress.

6. Do use a comma to set off a non-restrictive word or phrase (one that can be omitted without causing confusion about the noun it refers to): My husband, Derrick, is a personal trainer.  Note: One way to test this is to ask, Is the word or phrase one of a kind? So, in this sentence, since you can assume I only have one husband, commas would be used to set off Derrick. 

Do not use a comma where the word or phrase is restrictive: His book Tall Tales was a bestseller.

In this sentence, the reader would have to assume that the author has written more than one book since there are no commas to set off the title of the book, which in this case is a restrictive phrase. However, if he had written only one book, the sentence would read: His book, Tall Tales, was a bestseller.

7. Do use a comma to set off any non-restrictive relative clause, which is followed by the words which or some form of who:  I ate breakfast, which consisted of eggs, toast, and sausage. Again, a non-restrictive clause is one that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence.

Do not use a comma to set off restrictive clauses, which are preceded by the word that and which would change the meaning of the sentence if eliminated:

The breakfast that I ate consisted of eggs, toast, and sausage.


Those are but a few of the many, many rules governing comma usage. I would offer a few more, but too much talk of commas may send one into a coma!

Happy punctuating!

Having edited other people’s work as much as I’ve written my own, there are a few things I notice that continually cause writers (including myself!) to stumble. One of the more consistent is knowing when to use italics, when to use quotation marks, and when to capitalize. A full discussion on this topic would prove much too cumbersome for one blog post, so I’d like to tackle only a few areas where I see confusion regarding which of these formats to use.

1. When writing words or letters as words: This phrase alone is confusing! Words as words or letters as words means when when a word is being defined or when the word or letter is being used as the term itself, such as: “The word presumptuous means ‘taking liberties.'” Or, the letter q is always followed by a u.” In these instances, the word that is being used as the term itself–here “presumptuous” and “q” and “u,” is italicized. When a word is defined, the definition, such as “taking liberties,” is placed in quotation marks.

There are some exceptions–of course!–such as when letters are used in indicate scholastic grades, in which case they will be capitalized and not italicized; and when letters are used as shapes, as in “a T in the road.” Again, these letters will be capitalized and not italicized.

2. Foreign words and terms: When you use a foreign word that your readers will probably not know, the rule is to italicize it. If, however, your phrase becomes more like a sentence (or more) instead of just a few words, skip the italics and put the sentence(s) in quotation marks instead.  If you’re using a foreign word or phrase that is common or familiar, neither italicize or put in quotation marks. How do you know if a foreign word is common? If it appears in the dictionary, then it’s considered common. One other rule with foreign terms is that if the term is not in the dictionary and you use the same term several times, you need only italicize it the first time it’s used.

3. Trademarked or branded names: I’ve seen trademarks and brand names written in quotes and/or italicized in some manuscripts that I’ve edited. Neither is correct. Both are simply written with a capital letter. If you’re unsure if a name is trademarked or what the correct trademark is, you can check the International Trademark Association website to verify. Note, too, that trademarks do not need to have the TM symbol written next to them within a manuscript.

4. Titles of works: Of all the various phrases, words, and terms that could be italicized, put into quotation marks, or capitalized, I think none create more confusion than titles of works. Let’s look at just a few different kinds and how to treat them:

• Books, magazines, and newspapers–These titles are always italicized and written in headline style of capitalization. Book forms include booklets and e-books. With magazines and newspapers, be careful to check what constitutes the actual title. In the Washington Post, the is not part of the title and would not be italicized or capitalized. This rule applies to online forms of the media as well.

• Articles and chapters–A single article that appears in a magazine or newspaper or a chapter from a book is put into quotation marks and set in headline form, but never italicized.

• Plays, movies, and television shows–All of these titles are italicized and set in the headline form of capitalization, but…a single episode in a television show is not italicized but put in quotation marks.

• Musical works–These are very similar to movies and TV, where an album title is italicized, but a single work off of an album is put in quotation marks.

• Websites–Website titles are not italicized or put in quotation marks but are written in headline form.

If you are preparing a manuscript for publication, it’s often helpful if you can ask the publisher for a house style guide so you can be certain how they treat various terms. If this is not possible, a general rule is to follow the Associated Press’s  style guide for magazine articles and the Chicago Manual of Style for writing books.

I hope this cleared up some confusion and did not create more! These are little things that you may not think make much of a difference, but paying attention to such details will give your work a more professional appearance.

The semicolon is a strong member of the punctuation team, serving a multitude of functions. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what to do with them, so you will either see them thrown into sentences randomly or perhaps not at all.  Here are a few places where it is correct to use a semicolon:

•  Linking  independent clauses that carry equal weight:

“She was a star athlete; she even considered trying out for the Olympics.”

• To bring clarity amidst a series of commas:

“Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of the 70s was an amazing team. Some of its stars included Johnny Bench, catcher; Tony Concepcion, shortstop; and Pete Rose,  left fielder.”

• Between adverbs that join independent clauses:

“The roads are really icy tonight; therefore, I  won’t be attending the dinner party.”

Do not use semicolons…

• In the place of colons to introduce phrases, a list, or an independent clause:

“There are only three colors I like:  purple, blue, and turquoise.”

I’ve frequently seen the semi-colon used in place of the colon in such situations, but that is not correct usage.

• Instead of commas between a dependent clause and the main clause:

“He got a ‘C’ on the test, even though he studied all night.”

For a complete review of  semicolon usage, look at a style  manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Manual, or any grammar  guide. Used properly, the semicolon adds clarity and pace to your writing. Used incorrectly, it can bring confusion to your sentences and create distractions.