A Brief Review of Punctuation: Dashes

Hello everyone!

Today I want to tackle one of the most useful but perhaps most confusing elements of punctuation: the dash family.

The first thing to understand is that there are actually three members of what I’m calling the “dash family”: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Each of these family members has a different length and a different purpose. I also want to make sure that you note that different style guides and different types of publications sometimes have different rules for these family members. The rules I’m explaining here apply to the Chicago Manual of Style and most books; if you’re using a different style guide or are working on an article, please be sure to check your style guide before following the guidelines I’m presenting here!

Most people are pretty familiar with the hyphen and the em dash, even if they aren’t familiar with those technical names for them. The hyphen is the shortest of the dashes, and it’s used to form compound words, like “gluten-free” or “non-GMO.” The em dash is the longest of the dashes (about the length of two hyphens), and it’s primarily used to set words or phrases apart in a sentence–kind of like this. An em dash can be used in the middle or at the beginning of a sentence–on its own or in pairs–and there are no spaces between an em dash and its surrounding words.

Where things get tricky is with the en dash. Somewhere between a hyphen and an em dash in length, the en dash has three uses. The first is as a sort of super-hyphen in compound words where part of the compound is itself two or more words, like “post–World War II Europe” or “San Diego–based company.” The second use of an en dash is to replace the word “through” when presenting a range of numbers; for example, “World War II lasted from 1939–1945.” The final use of an en dash is to present scores or totals, such as “the Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28–24 in the 2015 Super Bowl.” As with em dashes (and hyphens, for that matter), there is no space between an en dash and the words or numbers on either side of it.

I hope this review has given you renewed confidence when you use any member of the dash family. Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes are all incredibly useful punctuation tools–and knowing the differences between them and using them properly in your writing can really make your prose stand out from the crowd!

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Other punctuation marks you’d like me to review? Please let me know! Otherwise, I’ll see you all next time!

A Prepositional Interruption

Hello all!

I’ll be returning to the punctuation review next time (dashes are up next!), but I wanted to interrupt myself today to share this highly helpful chart I found, which presents some of the most common word/preposition pairings. It’s surprisingly difficult sometimes to determine which preposition is supposed to go with the word you’re using, so I’m hoping that this will be a handy resource to get you through the matching process and back into the meat of your writing.

Here it is:


And that’s it for today! See you next time for a brief review of dashes and how to use them!

A Brief Review of Punctuation: The Quotation Mark

Hello everyone!

I’m back with another little punctuation lesson. Today’s victim? The quotation mark.

Now, the tricky part about quotation marks isn’t how or when to use them; it’s whether other punctuation marks go inside or outside closing quotation marks. Part of the vast confusion about the rules governing punctuation mark order stems from the fact that British English and American English differ when it comes to this issue. For simplicity’s sake, the rules I outline here will be for American English. The other part of the vast confusion stems from the fact that different rules apply to different punctuation marks when they’re used in conjunction with quotation marks. But not to worry! I’m going to lay it all out for you now…

So, you’ve got your quotation, and you’re all set with your opening quotation mark and all the punctuation that comes within the quotation. But now you’re at the end of the quotation, and you have no idea whether that comma, period, exclamation point, question mark, colon, or semicolon should go before or after your closing quotation mark!

Commas and periods are easy: They always go before the closing quotation mark. Always. No exceptions. It is always “Let’s go to the store,” she said and never “Let’s go to the store”, she said.

Colons and semicolons are also easy: They always go after the closing quotation mark. Always. No exceptions. It is always She said, “Let’s go to the store”; then she went and never She said, “Let’s go to the store;” then she went.

Question marks and exclamation points are slightly more difficult because they vary depending on context. If they are part of the quotation, they go before the closing quotation mark, and if they are not part of the quotation, they go after the closing quotation mark. So, She asked, “Do you want to go to the store?” but Did she say, “Let’s go to the store”?

And that’s all there is too it! Getting the order right is really just about remembering which rule applies to which punctuation marks…and hopefully this will serve as a handy guide to help you remember! Next time, I’ll be discussing dashes. But until then, go forth and quote away!