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Punctuation Guide


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Commonly-used punctuation marks

Question mark [?]

A question mark is a punctuation mark that replaces the period at the end of an interrogative sentence (ie one which asks a question). It can also be used mid-sentence to mark a merely interrogative phrase, where it functions similarly to a comma, such as in the sentence "where shall we go? and what shall we do?," but this usage is increasingly rare. The question mark is not used for indirect questions, Jim asked what time it was.

Exclamation mark [!]

An exclamation mark is a punctuation mark that marks the end of a sentence. A sentence ending in an exclamation mark is either an actual exclamation (Wow!), a command (Stop!), or is intended to be astonishing in some way (They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!).

Dash [—]

A dash is a punctuation mark, and is not to be confused with the shorter hyphen, which has different uses.

There are various forms of dash, two common ones being the en-dash and the em-dash.

En dash

The en dash (–) is one en in width. By definition, this is by exactly half the width of an em dash.

The en dash is used to indicate a closed range, or a connection between two things of almost any kind: numbers, people, places, etc. For example:

  • June–July 1967
  • 1:00–2:00 p.m.
  • For ages 3–5
  • pp. 38–55
  • New York–London flight

The Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI) recommends that the word "to" be used instead of an en dash when a number range might be misconstrued as subtraction, such as a range of units.

The en dash can also be used as a hyphen in a compound adjective, one part of which consists of two words or a hyphenated word:

  • pre–World War II period
  • anti–New Zealand sentiment
  • high-priority–high-pressure tasks (tasks which are both high-priority and high-pressure).

The en dash is also used, with a single space on each side, instead of a colon, and around parenthetical statements – like this one – in place of the more common em dash.

Except when used parenthetically or instead of a colon, an en dash does not have spaces around it.

Em dash

The em dash (—) is defined as one em in width. By definition, this is twice as wide as the en dash in any particular font.

The em dash indicates a sudden break in thought—a parenthetical statement like this one—or an open range (such as John Doe, 1987—). The em dash is used in much the way a colon or set of parentheses is used: it can show an abrupt change in thought or be used where a period is too strong and a comma too weak.

In North American usage—and also in old British usage—an em dash is never surrounded by spaces. In contrast, the modern practice in many other parts of the English-speaking world and in journalistic style is to separate the dash from its surrounding words when used parenthetically, by using spaces.

When an actual em dash is unavailable, a double hyphen-minus ("--") can be used in American English. However, this has never been accepted in other variants of English, such as Commonwealth English; instead, a single hyphen is used with space on either side (" - ").

Hyphen [-]

The hyphen ( - ) is used both to join words and to separate syllables.

  • Nouns formed of two nouns, or a noun and an adjective, are sometimes hyphenated, as blue-blood.
  • Except for noun-noun and adverb-adjective compound modifiers, when a compound modifier appears before a term, the compound modifier is generally hyphenated in order to prevent any possible misunderstanding, such as light-blue paint, twentieth-century invention, cold-hearted person, and award-winning show. Without the hyphens, there is potential confusion about whether 'light' applies to 'blue' or 'paint', whether 'twentieth' applies to 'century' or 'invention', etc. Hyphens are generally not used in noun-noun or adverb-adjective compound modifiers, because no such confusion is possible; for example:
    • government standards organization and department store manager
    • wholly owned subsidiary and quickly moving vehicle
  • Hyphenation is also common with adjective-noun compound modifiers. For example, real-world example; left-hand drive. Where the adjective-noun phrase would be plural standing alone, it usually becomes singular and hyphenated when modifying another noun. For example, four days becomes four-day week.
  • Names of numbers less than one hundred are hyphenated. For instance, the number 123 should be written one hundred [and] twenty-three.
  • Hyphens are also used to denote syllabification, as in syl-la-bi-fi-ca-tion.
  • If a word beginning on one line of text continues into the following line, a hyphen will usually be inserted immediately before the split.
  • Some married couples compose a new surname for their new family by combining their two surnames together with a hyphen in between. Jane Doe and John Smith might become Jane and John Smith-Doe, for instance. More often, however, only the woman hyphenates her birth surname with her husband's surname.

Slash [/]

The most common use of the slash is to replace the hyphen to make clear a strong joint between words or phrases, such as the Ernest Hemingway/William Faulkner generation. Yet very often it is used to represent the concept or, especially in instruction books.

The symbol also appears in the phrase and/or, a prose representation of the logical concept of inclusive or.

Brackets () [] {}

Brackets are punctuation marks, used in pairs to set apart or interject text within other text. Types of brackets include parentheses ( ), square brackets [ ], and braces { }.

Parentheses ()

Parentheses are used to contain parenthetical (or optional, additional) material in a sentence that could be removed without destroying the meaning of the main text. For example, George Washington (the father of his country) was not the wooden figure with wooden teeth that many think him. Indeed, such an interjection is called a parenthesis, and may also be set off with dashes or commas.

Parentheses may be used to add supplementary information, such as Sen. Kennedy (D., Massachusetts) spoke at length.

Square brackets []

Square brackets are used to enclose explanatory or missing [...] material, especially in quoted text. For example, I appreciate it [the honor], but I must refuse. Or, the future of psionics [See definition] is in doubt.

The bracketed expression [sic] (Latin for "thus") is used to indicate errors that are "thus in the original"; a bracketed ellipsis [...] is used to indicate deleted material; bracketed comments are used to indicate when original text has been modified for clarity: I'd like to thank [several unimportant people] and my parentals [sic] for their love, tolerance [...] and assistance [italics added].

Curly brackets or braces {}

Curly brackets (also called braces) are sometimes used in prose to indicate a series of equal choices: Select your animal {goat, sheep, cow, horse} and follow me.

Ellipsis [...]

The ellipsis is a row of three dots (...) indicating an intentionally omitted part of speech.

An example is, She went to … school. In this sentence, “…” might represent the word elementary, or the word no. The use of ellipses can either mislead or clarify, and the reader must rely on the good intentions of the writer who uses it. Omission without indication by an ellipsis is always considered misleading.

An ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in speech, or be used at the end of a sentence to indicate a trailing off into silence.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the
Wikipedia articles:S "Punctuation", "Full stop", "Comma (punctuation)", "Semicolon",
"Colon (punctuation)", "Apostrophe (mark)", "Quotation mark", "Question mark",
"Exclamation mark", "Dash", "Hyphen", "Slash (punctuation)", "Bracket", "Ellipsis".