Punctuation Basics - Part 2
Using Apostrophes, Quotation Marks, Hyphens, Dashes, and Brackets
Have you ever struggled to make sense of an email or a letter?
There's a fair chance that what baffled you most was poor punctuation. Perhaps it was littered with misplaced apostrophes and errant quotation marks. Maybe it had no punctuation at all!
Written business communication needs to be clear, accurate and professional. Punctuation matters. It reflects on you and your company, and on the care you take to communicate effectively.
This article, for Mind Tools Club and Corporate users, follows on from our public article, Punctuation Basics – Part 1. It focuses on more of the most important punctuation marks in written English: apostrophes, quotation marks, hyphens, dashes, and brackets.
Why Consistency Matters
Some punctuation marks vary in the way that they are used, depending, say, on the organization or country.
The important thing is to apply the rules consistently whenever you write. Whether you use double or single quotation marks, for example, the key is to use one or the other, and not to switch between the two.
Many companies have a "house style" – rules that specifiy which punctuation conventions to follow.
Some rules are common to all style guides; others are more flexible. You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the use of periods (known as "full stops" in British English) at the end of sentences, for example, but you will find variations about where to put periods and quotation marks at the end of a piece of direct speech.
When to Use Apostrophes
Apostrophes are essential in two circumstances: when you want to show belonging (possession), and to demonstrate that you've left something out (omission).
1. Apostrophes Showing Possession
You need an apostrophe and an "s" to show that a singular noun, a person's name, or a period of time possesses something. For example:
He missed Wednesday's assignment.
The dog's basket is in the kitchen.
There are, however, particular rules when a name ends in "s." Here, you add only an apostrophe:
Mr Hodges' daughter is called Helen.
In circumstances where a plural noun that already ends with an "s" has possession, you add just an apostrophe:
Term begins in two weeks' time.
And for plural nouns that don't end in "s," you add an apostrophe plus an "s":
The children's dog was a terrier.
She volunteered at a women's refuge.
You don't need an apostrophe to show possession for the words "his," "hers," "ours," "yours," or "theirs." These words are called "possessive pronouns."
2. Apostrophes Showing Omission
You can use an apostrophe to show that you've left letters out of a pair of words. For example:
"I am" becomes "I'm."
"She will" becomes "She'll."
"We had" and "We would" become "We'd."
"It is" becomes "It's."
"Would not" becomes "Wouldn't."
"You are" becomes "You're."
You can also use the apostrophe to show that you've left numbers out. For example:
The summer of '69.
It's important not to confuse apostrophes with quotation marks. Quotation marks punctuate direct speech and, although they look like apostrophes, they do a different job.
Take care to avoid using apostrophes to form plurals, too. "Pick your own strawberry's," for example, should be "Pick your own strawberries."
Also, beware of the difference between "its" and "it's." "Its," with no apostrophe, means "belonging to it" (as in, "The baby drank its milk"), whereas "It's," with an apostrophe, means "it is" or "it has" (as in, "It's been a hard day").
When to Use Quotation Marks
You use quotation marks for two main purposes:
1. To show the beginning and the end of "direct speech." Direct speech is a speaker's words written down as they were spoken. For example:
"I'm afraid you'll have to come with me," said the police officer.
2. To mark off a word or phrase that is directly quoted from somewhere else, or being emphasized as a point of discussion. For example:
Quotation marks show the beginning and end of "direct speech."
How you use quotation marks varies depending on where you are in the world. In American English, quotation marks are double marks, whereas single quotation marks are used more often for direct speech in British English.
Make sure that you're clear on your organization's style, and use it consistently throughout a piece of writing.
Also, in American English, any punctuation associated with the word or phrase in question comes before the closing quotation marks. For example:
This is sometimes called "general relativity."
Tighten the bolt with the tool called an "Allen key," before proceeding.
In British English, however, punctuation usually sits outside the closing quotation mark:
This is sometimes called 'general relativity'.
In American English, when you quote a piece of direct speech within another piece of direct speech, you use single quotation marks. For example:
Emily said, "You may not know much, but even you understand ‘This meeting room is booked,' I think."
In British writing, the opposite is allowed (though it is not as strictly enforced as in American English). So:
Emily said, ‘You may not know much, but even you understand "This meeting room is booked", I think.'
Whichever style you use, stick with one, and take care not to mix the two within the same document.
When to Use Hyphens
The hyphen (-) is a short horizontal rule that is almost always used without spaces before or after it. You use hyphens in three main situations:
1. To join words together to form compound words.
2. To add prefixes to words.
3. To show word breaks at the ends of lines.
Hyphens in Compound Words
Hyphens are used in many "compound words" – expressions that are made up of other words which join together to form new meanings. These can be adjectival, and join together to describe another word or phrase, as in:
The dark-haired man ran away.
I bought a cloud-ready printer.
Or, they can function as verbs. For example:
He color-coded the tabs on his folders.
Be careful to avoid confusing compound verbs with "phrasal verbs." Phrasal verbs are composed of a main verb and an adverb or preposition, as in "jump off" or "run over," and these are not hyphenated.
For example, "Traffic builds up in the late afternoon."
If you use the phrasal verb as a noun, however, you do hyphenate, as in "There was a build-up of limescale inside the pipe."
Hyphens don't appear in every compound word, however, or in every circumstance in which compound words are used. When a compound adjective comes before the term that it describes, for example, it takes a hyphen, but not when it comes afterward:
He came from a long-lived family.
His family was unusually long lived.
In modern use, compound words are not often hyphenated when they are nouns, though they can be (for example, "hanger-on," "check-in," and "court-martial").
Knowing when and when not to use a hyphen can be confusing so, if you're in doubt, refer to a dictionary or to your organization's style guide.
Using Hyphens with Prefixes
It's good practice to use a hyphen to separate a prefix from a name or a number. For example:
pre-2010 credit agreements.
Hyphens are useful to help you avoid confusion with another word, too. For example:
re-present: to present again.
represent: to stand for.
You can also use hyphens to join prefixes to words, particularly when joining the two brings two vowels together, as in:
However, one-word, unhyphenated forms (as in "preeminent," "preowned" and "cooperate") are becoming more common, so do check with a dictionary or your house style guide.
Hyphens Showing Word Breaks
You'll often see hyphens at the end of lines of printed text, to show where a word breaks across two lines. Your device should take care of this for you but, if you ever need to add line-break hyphens yourself, be sure to position them between syllables, at the natural breaking point of the word. For example, as in "pro-duct," rather than "prod-uct."
When to Use Dashes
Dashes come in two varieties although, in each case, the use is the same: to separate a piece of information that isn't essential to the rest of the sentence. You could just as easily use a comma or brackets for the same job, but dashes add a subtle emphasis.
1. American English often uses the "em dash," a long dash with no spaces at either end.
Large parts of Bangladesh—including the capital, Dhaka—are close to sea-level.
2. British English, however, prefers the shorter "en dash," with a space at each end.
Large parts of Bangladesh – including the capital, Dhaka – are close to sea-level.
You can also use dashes instead of colons, where you want to add emphasis to the second part of the sentence. For example:
You have one option—keep trying until you succeed.
When to Use Brackets
Brackets are another way to introduce nonessential or clarifying material into a sentence.
Round brackets (or "parentheses") are mostly used in the same way as dashes: to separate phrases that aren't necessary for the sentence to make sense, but which add useful information. If you remove the bracketed material, the sentence should still be fine. For example:
Our sales team (in North Africa) has exceeded its targets.
Key statistics support the report's findings (see Appendix B).
You can also use them for asides, such as:
She was exhausted (hardly surprising, as her workload was immense).
Square brackets are useful when you want to clarify quoted material, adding material that explains something that lies beyond the reader's knowledge:
"I don't know what effect these people [the newly arrived recruits] will have on the enemy, but they terrify me."
When you use parentheses or brackets at the end of a sentence, make sure that the period is placed after the closing bracket, as the last piece of punctuation in the sentence.
When using punctuation, be consistent. Stick to the conventions of your organization's style guide, if it has one. If it doesn't, be sure to check your punctuation in every piece of writing that you produce, focusing on accuracy and consistency.
Some of the most important punctuation marks to understand are:
Apostrophe: indicates possession or that letters are left out.
Quotation mark: bookends direct speech and indicates quoted material.
Hyphen: joins two or more words together to form compound words. It also follows prefixes, and indicates word breaks.
Dash: separates nonessential information and can be used in place of a comma, semicolon or colon when more emphasis is needed.
Bracket: another option for introducing nonessential or clarifying material into a sentence. Square brackets help to clarify quoted material.