Communication skills

Grammartistry with Em: let’s talk hyphens, dashes and brackets

- November 24, 2015 3 MIN READ

In Em’s first column she tackled some punctuation basics. Today, she steps things up a notch. It’s time to talk brackets, hyphens and dashes.

It’s punctuation basics time again! (Hang on, did that sentence deserve an exclamation mark? Did that one deserve a question mark? Do I really need these brackets? Let’s find out!)

Last month, I covered (the absolute basics of) full stops, commas, apostrophes, slashes, colons and semi-colons.

Now, I’ll cover (the absolute basics of) brackets, dashes (both em- and en-, with a side note on hyphens), ellipses, question marks and exclamation marks.

( )

Ah, brackets. Parentheses. Most commonly used for asides (like this one), digressions (which rhymes with impressions), and to include text that is (arguably) optional.

The two most common errors I see made with brackets are these:

  1. Forgetting to include the final bracket (seriously, it is amazing how often this happens [I’m tempted to leave this open to prove my point, but I just can’t do it]); and,
  2. Placing punctuation on the wrong side of a bracket.

So keep this in mind: if the text in brackets is a fragment (like this one), the punctuation goes outside of it (like that comma did – but not these dashes – and like this full stop will). If the text in brackets is a complete sentence, it goes inside. (Here’s an example sentence so you can see what I mean.)

Dashes get a little more tricky. There are two different kinds of dashes. And, because that’s not annoying enough, there are hyphens to consider as well. Hooray!

The en-dash is the shorter version. It should be used when specifying date ranges. The em-dash is longer. It has become the standard for separating text in a similar way to brackets and commas. So if you want to highlight something – or simply point out an alternative – em- is the way to go (and not just because it’s my name).

Meanwhile, all those dashes in my mentions of en-dash and em-dash? They’re actually hyphens. Hyphens join words and word fragments together to make new words. And hyphens are shorter than en-dashes, which are shorter than em-dashes. Are you still with me? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Those three dots? That’s an ellipsis. And that’s what it should always look like. Three dots. Not two. Not four. Not ten. Three little dots in a neat little row.

The ellipsis shows that a sentence is not complete. Sometimes it signals missing words: perhaps a superfluous word or two omitted from a quote in an article with a strict word limit. Sometimes it shows a complete lack of speech, most commonly in transcripts where someone doesn’t speak or refuses to answer a question.

Sometimes it just leaves you hanging. Perhaps someone is trailing off as they speak. Perhaps they are leaving something open to interpretation. The ellipsis can leave you hanging without resolve. Or it can do this …

… and then this. Quite the cliffhanger.


What’s that? Oh, hello there question mark! This one is pretty straightforward. You use a question mark to show that something is a question. Enter Captain Obvious, stage left.

It can become complicated when combined with other forms of punctuation however. Where do you put a question mark when using brackets within a sentence (like this one)? The answer in that situation is: at the end.

What about a question mark when using brackets around a whole sentence? (What do you think you should do?) What about quotation marks? That one actually needs a whole post to itself!


Aha! The exclamation mark! Once used sparingly, you’ll see this little guy everywhere these days. Especially if you’re a fan of the music of P!nk.

You use the exclamation mark when you want to convey excitement! Fear! Anger! Outrage! Insane levels of weeping and hysteria! OMG I HAVEN’T HAD AN INTERNET CONNECTION FOR MORE THAN A MONTH AND NOW I HAVE SO MANY LOOMING DEADLINES!!!!!!!!!* And sometimes you use it in conjunction with a question mark. Because doesn’t this look so exciting?!

(* Based on a true story. It’s been a tough month.)

And that’s it! Well, that’s not it. That’s all I can fit into a single post on these particular punctuation marks. Phew.

It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? I mean, what’s with all these rules? Who wrote them, anyway?

This is where I put down the red pen and unleash my inner linguist. (She’s never far from the surface, even when I’m in full proofreader mode.) The thing is, the rules are not really rules. They are our best estimation of what is standard, or what is most commonly accepted. They outline the word, sentence and punctuation forms that are likely to attract the least amount of ridicule from the world’s self-appointed protectors of the language.

They are different everywhere. They are different across countries, across state lines and even across neighbourhood fences. And they are constantly changing.

Don’t fret if you don’t understand how to use punctuation ‘correctly’. Just keep it simple. Things change, but lists, simple words, declarative sentences and full stops will never go out of style.

Do you have any writing or punctuation questions I can address in future columns? I’m all ears! And red pens.

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  • Andrew Caska

    Caska IP Patent Attorneys

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