Puzzling Punctuation — Carolyn Wilker

Punctuation trips up many writers, from beginner to the more experienced, so for this post, I’ll address six of the commonly used punctuation marks:  hyphen, en dash, em dash, colon, semicolon, and ellipsis. Knowing correct usage is important for anyone who writes.

Hyphens and Dashes

  • Hyphen

This little dash, used in compound nouns, such as the word non-essential, is also used in phone numbers, social security numbers, website addresses and ISBNs. It’s also used for spelling out the letters of a word, like this, C-o-l-o-r-a-d-o. There’s a handy list for hyphen usage in the Chicago Manual of Style, section 7.90.

  • En dashes

This dash is a little longer than a hyphen and not quite as long as an em dash. Its main use is to connect numbers, such as a range of years, as in a person’s life (1955–2013), or range of chapters in a book (12–14). It means up to and including (or through). Additionally, it shows up on the copyright page of a book like this, Jane Doe (1950– ).

The en dash can also connect two words, such as, “The Toronto–Montreal train is due to leave at 5:00 pm.”

  • Em dashes

Em dashes—the longest of the dashes—is used for material that amplifies or explains but is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Overused, the em dash makes text choppy; but sparingly, it adds interest to a piece of writing. This dash is a personal favourite. Use it like spice in your food—only as required.

Colon and Semicolon

  • Colon

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “A colon introduces an element or list of elements.” An example I use in teaching is the list of items I’d take on a holiday. It sets out the purpose for the list, and then the list appears after the colon. “When I go on my vacation, I will take: a book, swimsuit and my swim goggles.” The list can be included sentence-style or set off as bulleted points.

Colons also set off an introductory phrase or dialogue, such as in this example, “Lorraine: I came a long way for these delicious biscuits.”

  • Semicolon

There are a half-dozen ways to use a semicolon, but I’ll share just one. Chicago Manual of Style states that the semicolon is “stronger than a comma but weaker than a period, that is, it can assume either role” and adds that it’s closer to a period.

Two distinct sentences that are closely related can be connected by a semicolon. “Evy is excited about going to school; however, she is also a little anxious about it.” The second sentence has its own structure, but the content is connected to the sentence before. It’s still about a little girl who will start school.  

Ellipsis (…)

Next to exclamation marks, the ellipsis is one of the most misused pieces of punctuation. I’ve seen them sprinkled like confetti on the page, using dozens of dots, often to share excitement or bursts of thought. But not by you, I’m sure.

Ellipsis consists of three evenly spaced periods and indicates omitted phrases, lines or more from a quote, with care that the meaning of a passage is not skewed. It’s also used for faltering or interrupted speech. Faltering speech might show up like this: “I… that is, we… oh, I don’t know how to say this.”

Wrapping up

Whether you’re writing a novel, how-to article, children’s story or a letter to the editor, you show your professionalism by paying attention to your choice of words, grammar and proper punctuation. It’s not as painful as you think. A good grammar guide is an important addition to your resources.

Resources I’ve found helpful

See Chicago Manual of Style, or consult a reliable grammar guide such as Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians, Buckley,© 2003, or Practical Grammar, second edition, Ruvinsky, ©2009, Oxford.

carolyn-wilkerCarolyn Wilker


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