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Punctuation Tips

How to properly use dashes, hyphens, parentheses, quote marks (double and single), apostrophes, ellipses, brackets, slashes, question marks, and exclamation points.

Excerpted from Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences: A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation by Janis Bell.


Punctuation marks are to writing what vocal delivery is to speech. Can you imagine talking in a monotone without pause? Your audience would have difficulty making sense of your words, let alone figuring out where emphasis and nuance belong.

If you drain the punctuation from your writing, you have no louds, no softs, no expression, no innuendo. If you use only a few punctuation marks, you seriously restrict your style. If you misuse punctuation marks, you send your reader down the wrong road, maybe even up a tree.

You need to understand exactly what each mark can and cannot do, as well as the message it gives to your reader.

Dashes

First of all, a dash is not a hyphen. It is twice as long (you need to hit the hyphen key twice to create one dash) and it performs very different functions.

Dashes do three jobs, each of which can be accomplished by another punctuation mark. Why, then, use dashes? Because they carry two messages—one related to the job they are doing and the other related to emphasis, clarity, or formality. Here are the roles of dashes:

1. They surround an interruption

2. They lead to an afterthought

3. They introduce a specific explanation

Surrounding an interruption

Examples:

My daughter—Rebecca—has an imaginary playmate.
My neighbor’s children—Sima, Sarah, and Sam—interact with the real kids on our block.

Note: In the first example, the dashes give the interruption more emphasis than commas or parentheses would. In the second example, the dashes lend more clarity than commas would, since the interruption contains commas.

Leading to an afterthought

Examples:

Rebecca speaks to her friend in a private language—one that I don’t understand.
Her friend replies with abundant good humor—at least, that’s the way it appears.

Note: Although in the first example a comma could lead to the afterthought, the dash gives it more emphasis. In the second example, the dash lends both emphasis and clarity (using commas before and after at least would make it look like an interruption, which it isn’t).

Introducing a specific explanation

Examples:

Rebecca has a name for her playmate—Stefan Stefanopolis.
Stefan has one great quality—he makes Rebecca laugh.

Note: While a colon or parentheses may also be used to distinguish an explanation, the dash creates a different effect: it is less formal than a colon; it gives more attention to the explanation than parentheses.

Hyphens

Hyphens connect multiple adjectives that appear to the left of a noun. What is a multiple adjective? Two or more descriptive words that need each other to create the meaning you want—for example, blue-eyed boy: he is not a blue boy or an eyed boy; blue and eyed must be linked, to make proper sense.

Furthermore, blue-eyed is hyphenated because it appears to the left of boy. If it appeared to the right, it would not be hyphenated—for example, the boy is blue eyed.

More examples:

nine-hole golf course
300-page book
no-nonsense approach
life-affirming goals
labor-intensive work
vine-ripened tomatoes
58-year-old senator
off-the-record comment
four- and six-part harmony

Note: Don’t hyphenate when the first descriptive word is an adverb ending in ly—for example, poorly written script or highly regarded institution.

Parentheses

Parentheses are for surrounding background information, aside comments, material of secondary importance. They de-emphasize the text they contain; they prompt the reader to lower her voice until she exits the parenthetical remark.

Parentheses can occur within a sentence, referring to a given word or phrase; at the end of a clause, referring to the entire statement; or around an upcoming new sentence. (In other words, they can surround an interruption, an afterthought, or a sentence, like the one you’re reading now.)

Examples:

Apparently, Stefan Stefanopolis (my daughter’s imaginary playmate) is quite amusing.
He keeps Rebecca laughing throughout the day (and sometimes into the night).
I’m a little worried that Rebecca doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. (This morning she asked me why I hadn’t served Stefan any pancakes.)

Note: The second and third examples show that a period can go either outside or inside the closing parenthesis, depending on what just ended—a sentence containing a parenthetical remark or a separate sentence within parentheses.



Double Quotation Marks

Double quotation marks do four jobs:

1. they surround words spoken or written by someone else

2. they surround words used as terms (this purpose can also be served by italics)

3. they surround words used sarcastically

4. they surround titles of chapters or articles (in contrast, titles of books and periodicals are underlined or italicized).

Surrounding words spoken or written by someone else

Examples:

Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
When he mentioned “liberty,” was he, by any chance, married?

Note: In the first example, there’s a comma after Patrick Henry said because those are introductory words leading to a quoted sentence.

In the second example, there is no punctuation after When he mentioned because what follows is only one quoted word (not a quoted sentence).

Note: Periods and commas belong inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. Don’t even think of placing them outside—just tuck them in.

Surrounding words used as terms

Example:

What do you suppose “liberty” meant to Mr. Henry? (meaning “the term liberty”)

Surrounding words used sarcastically

(to achieve the effect of so-called)

Example:

People in many countries enjoy the “liberty” of voting for the only candidate on the ballot.

Note: Sarcasm is the effect you wind up with if you use quotes where they don’t belong. Quotes are not for showing your discomfort with a colloquial expression. Either make your peace with the idiom and use it without quotes, or choose another way to say what you mean.

Incorrect:

Please don’t “beat around the bush.”

Correct:

Please don’t beat around the bush.

or

Please get to the point.

Surrounding titles of chapters or articles

Examples:

Did you read “Bush on Fire” in Time Magazine?
No, but I read “My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time.

COMMON QUESTION:

If commas and periods always belong inside closing quotation marks, what about colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points? Do they belong inside or out?

Colons and semicolons belong outside the closing quotation mark because they belong to the overall sentence, rather than to the words in quotes. (It wouldn’t make sense to stop a quote at a colon or semicolon.)

Examples:

I think I know what Patrick Henry meant when he said, “Give me liberty or give me death”: he was expressing a desire to be single again.
Mr. Henry didn’t really mean “give me death”; he meant that if he couldn’t divorce, he’d move to New Jersey.

Question marks and exclamation points belong either inside or outside the closing quotation mark, depending on what they belong to—the words in quotes or the overall sentence. In rare instances, a question mark appears before and after the quote.

Examples:

Consider the song “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”
Do you agree that love is “a second-hand emotion”?
What’s the message within “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”?
It may be “A heart can be broken!”
It can’t be “Love is a sweet old-fashioned notion”!

Note: When a sentence that isn’t a question ends with a quotation that is a question (Consider the song “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”), don’t use a period. Even though the overall sentence is not a question, it simply ends when that question mark shows up. No more punctuation.

Single Quotation Marks

A single quotation mark (the same symbol used to create an apostrophe) serves only one purpose: to surround a quotation that occurs inside another quotation. Since double quotation marks encompass the overall quote, you need another way to distinguish the quote within.

Example:

The instructor said, “Whenever I explain punctuation, someone asks, ‘What’s the purpose of single quotes?’”

Note: The example ends with both a single and a double quote because both quotations finish at the same time.

Apostrophes

Apostrophes serve three purposes:

1. they represent a missing letter within a contraction

2. they make a noun possessive

3. they make an abbreviation, a letter, or a numeral plural.

Representing a missing letter within a contraction

Example:

It’s acceptable to use contractions in business writing if you want to achieve a conversational tone.

Making a noun possessive

The way to make a noun possessive depends on whether the noun ends in the letter s. It doesn’t matter whether that noun is singular or plural; what matters is its final letter.

Here’s the rule: If the noun does not end in the letter s, make it possessive by adding an apostrophe and an s. If the noun does end in the letter s, add only an apostrophe.

Examples:

the mouse’s tail
the mice’s tails
the platypus’ bill
the platypuses’ bills

The first two examples are made possessive in the same way (apostrophe s), even though one is singular and the other is plural. The third and fourth examples are also made possessive in the same way (only an apostrophe), even though one is singular and the other is plural.

The only time you have the option of adding an apostrophe and an s to a noun that ends in an s is when that noun is someone’s name—e.g., Myers’s rum. Remember, that extra s is an option; it is also correct to write Myers’ rum.

Making an abbreviation, a letter, or a numeral plural

Example:

The teaching assistants (TA’s) predicted several B’s on student-grade reports and a few 10’s on instructor-performance evaluations.

Note: The apostrophe may also be omitted in the plural form of abbreviations, letters, and numerals—for example, TAs, Bs, 10s.



Ellipses

An ellipsis (. . .) indicates that something has been deleted from a quote. It doesn’t tell how much has been left out; it shows only that the passage has been reduced to its pertinent parts.

Example:

Original text: “San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT), the nation’s only full-time resident repertory company, has a considerably scaled-down season this year.”
Abridged text: “San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater . . . has a considerably scaled-down season this year.”

Note: If the ellipsis leads to the end of a sentence, follow it with a space and then a final period.

Brackets

Brackets ([ ]) are the opposite of ellipses—they show that something has been added to or changed within quoted material. They come in handy when you want to clarify something for your reader.

Example:

Original text: “Millions of genes are arranged along the giant strands of DNA in each human cell.”
Enhanced text: “Millions of genes are arranged along the giant strands of DNA [commonly known as chromosomes] in each human cell.”

Slashes

A slash ( / ) means “and or.”

Example:

She is the manager/maintenance person of this ark.

Question Marks

Besides ending an interrogatory sentence, a question mark can turn a declarative statement into an inquiry.

Examples:

What do you do for relaxation?
You call exercise relaxing?

Exclamation Points

An exclamation point indicates enthusiasm or surprise.

Examples:

Congratulations on your promotion!
What a shock!

Note: Use exclamation points sparingly, to preserve their effect. If you use them liberally, they become meaningless. Also, when you do use one, stop at that—don’t type two, three, or four in a row.



Photo by Hiroko Koike

An English professor and writing consultant since 1973, Janis Bell teaches writing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, California, where she currently resides. Learn more at JanisBell.com.