Punctuation and the Tone-Scape of Writing

In the previous article, “Beyond Commas,” I discussed how using a range of punctuation techniques creates additional tone in writing. When used along with commas, techniques like dashes and parentheses help us avoid a flat, unnatural tone—in effect, allowing us to write with the same nuance and emotion with which we speak.

I have developed an analogy for this practice, and it’s an analogy I share with my students when discussing how punctuation affects tone. I call this concept the tone-scape, and I want to share it here with you, dear reader.

For a moment, forget that we are discussing writing, and think instead about art. Specifically, imagine a painting or photograph of a landscape. Most landscape images consist of three levels of perspective: foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground might include a tree branch, one that is very close to the viewer’s perspective—so close, in fact, that it is almost in the viewer’s face. Since it is very close to the viewer, this in-your-face branch looks much larger than tree branches in the middle ground. Essentially, the foreground jumps out at us and grabs our attention, even if we are trying to focus on other parts of the image.

The middle ground is where most of the action takes place in a conventional landscape painting. As its name implies, it is in the middle of the image: behind the foreground but in front of the background. The eyes tend to be naturally drawn towards the middle ground.

The background is behind the middle ground, and it appears very small because it is the most distant part from the viewer’s perspective. Oftentimes, if there are elements in the background, those elements are subtle and do not catch the eye quickly. It has the very opposite effect that the foreground has.

Need an example? Look at the image below, and notice that the foreground, middle ground, and background are labeled. (By the way, I drew this myself, so please remember: I’m an English professor—not an artist!) While the image is far from perfect, the items in each part are clear: a bush is in the foreground, blocking part of the house. The house and the tree are in the middle ground, and behind them in the background is a mountain. There is a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, even in this crude image, because the image takes advantage of foreground, middle ground, and background:

In contrast, look at the image below, where everything is flat and two-dimensional. Everything is in the middle ground, and every part sits on one flat line:

Most children draw in the two-dimensional form above, with no items emphasized or deemphasized. As the child grows older, he will learn more about perspective and how to simulate three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional picture plane. Even if he does not become an artist, he will develop a sense that things farther away from us appear smaller and higher than things that are close. Even if it is crudely represented (as my attempts above clearly are), the adult at least attempts to represent perspective and depth.

The trained artist takes the techniques of perspective to the next level. She knows, for example, how to draw a background object with less detail than an object in the middle ground. She knows precisely how to adjust the sizes and proportions of objects relative to their distance from the viewer. In short, she has developed a set of advanced artistic techniques for realistically representing three-dimensionality.

Writing is the same way. When we write, we want to capture a full range of tones and nuances. We do not want to have flat, two-dimensional writing. Most people capture this range when speaking: they know when to inflect, when to raise their voice, and when to speak in hushed tones. We do this instinctively. And that makes sense; after all, we get plenty of practice speaking in our day-to-day lives. However, when it comes to writing, many people have trouble capturing that range of tones: that naturally diverse human voice. They do not know how to emphasize a phrase so that that it jumps out at the reader, occupying the “foreground” of the writing. Similarly, they do not know how to simulate a whispered aside to the reader (nor how to make a sentence or phrase fade into the background of the sentence).

Punctuation is the key to achieving this three-dimensionality. Think of the dash as being the “in-your-face” foreground punctuation. If something is set off in dashes, it is to be read with a bit more passion, force, and tone than the rest of the sentence. Dashes create the foreground of the sentence’s tone-scape.

As in art, the middle ground of the sentence is where most of the action takes place. In other words, most of the sentences we write will maintain a neutral, “middle” tone. This neutral tone is achieved with commas. Commas create pauses in writing, but those pauses are for the most part neutral pauses, although they may drop the pitch slightly at times.

The background of the tone-scape is achieved through parentheses. Parentheses often set off beside-the-point, “by the way” phrases (not coincidentally called “parenthetical phrases”) that might be useful for the reader to know, but hardly make up the most important point in the sentence. In the same way that someone might look into the background of a landscape painting to take in small enriching details, the reader can enjoy the non-essential (but enriching) details contained in parentheses. Parentheses serve another point as well by creating a whispered tone, so you should use parentheses to say the kinds of things you might whisper to your reader (perhaps with a wink and a smile).

The interplay of these three techniques within a piece of writing creates three simultaneously existing layers of emphasis. These three layers of tone are the equivalent of foreground, middle ground, and background that we see in visual art. The difference between the pro writer and the novice writer is precisely the same difference we see between the pro artist and the novice artist: the pro has mastered a diverse range of techniques for representing the real nature of things. While the artist represents landscapes as they are naturally seen by the human eye, the writer represents natural spoken language as heard by the human ear.

Next Up: The Next Series of The Writer’s Toolbox:

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know

In the writing courses I teach at Onondaga Community College, students compose their own persuasive essays, but over the course of the semester, I assign readings of anthologized essays–written arguments that represent the pinnacle of persuasion and power. Such works include many of the essays referenced here, in The Writer’s Toolbox.

One of those essays is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, I was rereading MLK’s classic essay, just after reading student essays. With those two (very different) reading experiences juxtaposed, the vast differences between MLK’s powerful, moving prose (prose that almost always brings me to tears as I read, if only for the beauty and majesty of the writing itself) and my students’ work (a great deal of which brings me to tears for altogether different reasons), something struck me–a question I had surely considered before, but one that really hit home for the first time:

“What are the differences between the student essays I’ve been reading today and MLK’s essay? Are there specific, indentifiable techniques that separate average writers from powerful, moving writers?” I came to realize that it is often these same techniques that separate my A students from my C students.

But what exactly are those techniques? The next series, “Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know,” discusses those techniques and how new writers can employ those techniques to profoundly increase the effectiveness of their writing. Trust me: if you’re not using these techniques in your writing, developing them is worth your very best effort. That said, most of these techniques are remarkably simple to employ, once you’re aware of them.

  • Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know (I will make this article available soon. Stay tuned.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Brackets: Making Additions to Quotations

Brackets are the square cousins of parentheses. [Brackets look like this.] Use brackets to show insertions of your own language or ideas into a quotation. This way, you stay true to the original source, while having the freedom to adjust the language to make it more stylistically or grammatically fitting to the context in which you are presenting it.

Confusing? An example will serve best. Let’s suppose that you want to quote the following sentence from Judith Ortiz Cofer’s essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria”:

“I still experience a vague sense of letdown when I’m invited to a ‘party’ and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration I remember from my childhood.”

How can you share this quote out of its context, while maintaining a clear connection with the original context? How can you subtly answer the larger question of what Ortiz Cofer’s essay is about, while remaining focused on your own reason(s) for sharing the quote?

The answer: brackets! Here’s how to do it:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Listed below are the bracket applications used in the Ortiz Cofer quotation. Also, here’s a color-coded version of the quote. The bracket techniques listed below correspond to the color code, so feel free to reference the color-coded quote to see the examples of these applications:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Brackets can add elements like –s endings to words: Notice that the Ortiz Cofer quote above uses brackets in different ways to adjust the language of the quote. While some brackets set off entire words and phrases, other brackets set off parts of words. For example, consider the first use of brackets in the Ortiz Cofer quote above: the brackets allow the writer to add an –s ending to “experience” so that the verb agrees in number with the pronoun she. To say, “she still experience a vague sense of letdown” is inconsistent because the subject and verb do not match–an error called “subject-verb disagreement.” The –s needs to be added to experience to make the verb align with the subject, she, so that we have the phrase, “she still experiences.” However, since the additional –s ending is not part of the original material, the writer sets it off in brackets: “experience[s].”

Brackets can replace original words or phrases with new language: The next bracket in the sentence replaces I’m with she is to make the quote align with the perspective of the writer who is quoting Ortiz Cofer. Since the writer thinks of Ortiz Cofer as she and not as I, the writer can use brackets to replace pronouns accordingly.

Brackets can insert new words or phrases into a quotation: The inserted phrase “in America” clarifies the sentence for the reader, since that reader does not have the context of the entire essay to explain the point that Ortiz Cofer is commenting on how parties in America differ from parties in her homeland of Puerto Rico. One well placed bracketed insertion allows the writer to highlight that context while sharing the quotation.

Brackets are not needed to add material immediately before or after the quote. Use brackets only for insertions within the quotation marks: After the end of the quote, the writer adds “growing up in Puerto Rico” but does not use brackets to do so. Likewise, before the quote begins, the writer uses the pronoun she to replace the original first-person pronoun, I. When considering bracket use, this is a good technique to consider: at the beginning and end of the quotation, the writer can add parts without using brackets, so long as those changes occur outside the quotation marks. Use brackets only for changes that occur within the quoted material. With this point in mind, the writer can make adjustments to the language of the quote simply by choosing where to begin and end the quotation.

Additional bracket applications

Use a bracketed ellipsis to remove or skip material in a quote: The ellipsis is the three-dot symbol: . . . When it is bracketed, the ellipsis looks like this: [. . .]. One use of the ellipsis is to show that part of a quotation is being omitted or skipped. Some writers simply insert a non-bracketed ellipsis into the quote. Although the non-bracketed ellipsis is perfectly acceptable, it can lead to problems if the writer is quoting a source that frequently uses the ellipsis for other purposes (such as using an ellipsis to show a long pause or hesitation). Using brackets is a clear way of saying, “This ellipsis is mine, and it is not part of the original quote.”

Here is an example of how a writer might choose to include a full quote:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is an example of how the writer can use the bracketed ellipsis to omit material for concision and efficiency:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

To learn more about the ellipsis and its other applications in writing, click here.

Use brackets to replace errors in the original quote: In addition to replacing words in a quote simply to fit the larger context, you can also use brackets to correct misspellings and other errors. Simply replace the erroneous portion with the corrected version, and frame the replaced part(s) in brackets.

Here is the original quote—a line that a student or essayist might quote from a newspaper article. Notice how the quote contains a spelling error for the homophones there and their:

“Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer there questions in time.”

Here is how we can adjust the quote in the larger essay:

The Local Herald reported, “Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer [their] questions in time.”

Setting off sic in brackets to point out an error in the original quotation: Inserting [sic] after an error in the quoted material lets the reader know that the original source has a typographical or grammatical error. (Sic, pronounced like sick, is Latin for thus, which essentially means, “Thus it is, as it appeared in the original material.”) With this technique, you can let the reader know that the mistake isn’t yours, while remaining true to the original quote.

So, why use sic when we can simply replace the error with the corrected usage? The answer involves the writer’s purpose: there are times that a writer may want to leave the error visible in the quotation and to use a bracketed sic to point out that the error occurred. For example, writers use the sic technique when writing a critique or rebuttal of an opponent’s argument, since it is a tasteful and defendable way of saying to one’s detractors, “You don’t write with care and precision!” As the writer attacks the arguments of her opponent, she also undercuts her opponent’s credibility by (correctly) pointing out errors. In this sense, brackets serve a special rhetorical function, even as they serve the purposes of clarity and basic mechanics.

Here is an example of using a bracketed sic to indicate an error in the original source:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: is [sic] our children learning what they should in school?”

The other approach (discussed earlier) is simply to replace the erroneous word with the correct usage:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: [are] our children learning what they should in school?”

Note: Sic is italicized since it is a foreign (Latin) word. Treat other foreign terms this way, unless those terms have been fully integrated as English terms.

Use brackets to place a parenthetical phrase within another parenthetical phrase: If (for some rare [but valid] purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as seen in this sentence. However, the best advice is to avoid placing brackets within parentheses by rewriting or rearranging the sentence. Many readers, after all, are unaware of this particular bracket technique, so they may become confused by the appearance of brackets within a parenthetical phrase or clause. This is the one bracket application that does not involve quotations.

Here is how the writer might avoid using brackets in the example sentence:

If (for some rare, but valid, purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as [no longer] seen in this sentence.

(Did you see how—and why—the writer did use brackets in the revised sentence above?)

Next Up: Dashes and Parentheses

As we near the end of “Punctuation Toolbox,” there are two more key punctuation techniques to discuss: dashes and parentheses. And here’s the best part–I saved the best for last! (Now doesn’t that make you want to read on?)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Quotation Marks And Other Punctuation

Punctuating the end of a quotation can be tricky, especially in American English, where some punctuation marks default to the inside of the quotation marks, while others can be placed outside the quotation marks. The divisions break down into two groups:

Inside Quotation Marks: When ending a quotation, place periods and commas within the quotation marks, even if the period or comma is not part of the original quotation.

Outside or Inside Quotation Marks: However, when ending a quotation in a question mark, exclamation point, colon, or semicolon, place the punctuation outside the quotation, unless that punctuation is part of the original quoted language. If the punctuation is part of the original quoted language, place it inside the quotation marks.

Here is an example of placing a comma that occurs just after a quote:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story,” a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind.

Treat periods the same way–always put them inside:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story.”

Well . . . the period goes inside the quotation marks  in most cases. If the sentence ends in a parenthetical citation, the period goes after the citation. This placement encloses the citation within the larger sentence to show that the citation refers to that sentence. In a sense, the sentence swallows up the parenthetical citation with that period. Look:

The broadcasting legend put it best when he said, “And that’s the rest of the story” (Harvey).

But other than that one exception, the period’s default placement is inside the quotation marks. However, question marks works differently.

If the question mark is not part of the quoted language or dialogue line, place the question mark outside the quotation marks:

Why did Paul Harvey choose to end all of his programs with his signature line, “And that’s the rest of the story”?

However, if the question mark is part of the quoted language, put it inside the quotation marks:

Ed asked, “Don’t you remember Paul Harvey’s radio program?”

Removing Parts of Quotations: Ellipses

When you remove part of a quotation for the sake of efficiency or clarity, use an ellipsis (three dots) to replace the omitted part.

Here’s an example of using an ellipsis to show an omission from a quotation:

First, here is the full text from the quote. I have marked the part that will be omitted in bold:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is how a writer might omit elements to save space or to get to the point:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children . . . will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Although a normal ellipsis is allowable for showing omissions from a quote, many writers prefer to put the ellipsis in brackets to show that the ellipsis is not part of the original quote. After all, the original language could have a stylistic ellipsis to show a long pause or a hesitation in speech. Bracketed ellipses allow writers to differentiate between a stylistic ellipsis and an ellipsis of omission.

Here is how to frame the ellipsis of omission in brackets:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This use of brackets follows the larger rule for using brackets:

Brackets show an insertion of new material into a quotation.

To learn more about the ellipsis and its many applications in writing, click here.

Making Insertions and Replacements within Quotes: Brackets

Writers use brackets to add their own clarifications or adjustments to quotations. Here is an example:

Here is the original quote:

Senator Smith: “I will cast my vote only for laws ensuring that my African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that I have enjoyed.”

And here is the quote, adjusted to fit the writer’s third-person perspective of Smith:

Senator Smith stated that he would “cast [his] vote only for laws ensuring that [his] African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that [he has] enjoyed.”

Logically enough, the writer should discuss Senator Smith as he and not as I. The brackets show this shift in perspective, while indicating that the writer has adjusted Senator Smith’s original language.

Did you notice how the quote above actually incorporates Smith’s quotation into the writer’s own syntax? The transition is almost seamless, but almost is the key word: the quotation marks show readers where Smith’s quote begins—and where it ends.

To learn more about brackets, read on.

Next Up: More on Brackets

The next punctuation technique explored in “Punctuation Toolbox” is brackets (discussed briefly in the section directly above). Click the link below to learn more.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Quotation Marks: Odds & Ends

Use Block Quotes for Long Quotations

When presenting a quotation that exceeds four lines (that is, the quote goes into the fifth line), use a block-quote format instead of using quotation marks. Do this by setting the quotation off in its own paragraphed section (but do not indent the first line) and by insetting the left margin by one inch. (In Microsoft Word, the indentation feature is located in the “Paragraph” menu.)

Cited below is an example of a block quote. This quotation is from the introduction to my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, which attempts to explain and debunk writing rules we learn as children but should discard as adults. Notice that, in quoting the material below, I do not use quotation marks. The indentation acts as the quotation framing device in place of quotation marks:

Most children begin their development as writers by being given lists of rules. If you learned these rules, you probably learned them from trusted teachers, most likely during grade school or middle school, but perhaps you learned them as late as high school. If you are still trying to follow these rules, you probably get the sense that following them is often unrealistic—and even damaging—for your writing. You feel a profound sense of relief whenever you write informal, personal prose, if only for the reason that you are able to ignore these rules and write like yourself. You get the sense that journalists and award winning authors have found some secret way around these rules, for such expert writers break these writing taboos quite frequently—and to great effect. You have an overwhelming sense that there is a bigger, better world of writing, but you have an equally large sense that you can never enter that world.

(Note: In these Writer’s Toolbox articles, I use block quotes even for shorter quotations to highlight these examples for my readers. However, in formal writing situations, like college essays or academic articles, follow the standard rule for block quoting.)

If you are interested in learning more about my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, click here.

Quotes within Quotes

Sometimes, a writer may quote a source that quotes another source. There are two ways to handle this matter: one for short quotations (using quotation marks) and another for long quotations (using block quotes).

For short quotations, use the single quotation mark (the same symbol as the apostrophe) to show the innermost quote. For the overall (outside) quote, use normal double quotation marks. Here is an example:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’”

Notice how, in the passage above, the closing quotation marks appear to be a triple set of quotation marks. That is not the case: what seems to be a triple quotation mark is actually the inner single quotation mark (to close MLK’s quote) followed by the outer double quotation marks (to close Senator Smith’s quote). If Senator Smith’s quote had continued after the MLK quote, the closing quotation mark sets would be displaced from one another, like this:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’ I couldn’t agree more with these momentous words, spoken by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr.”

However, if the larger quote exceeds four lines, it should be framed in a block quote. The quote within the quote can then be framed in (normal) double quotation marks, like this:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I couldn’t agree more with these momentous words, spoken by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s words ring true even today, as we pass laws to ensure that American companies will practice fairness and equality in their hiring policies.

Looking at both of these examples, the overall rule is simple: if double quotation marks are already present and the writer needs to include an internal quote, the writer should use single quotation marks for the internal quote. If double quotation marks are not already present (as in a block quote), then the writer should simply use double quotation marks for the internal quote.

If in the rare event that you must include a quote within a quote within a quote, simply alternate between double and single quotation marks for each additional internalized quote. Although this triple-quotation technique is available, experienced writers attempt to avoid these confusing moments by finding some other way to present the quote. Many writers attempt to remove the outermost quotation and simply to share a quote within a quote. Other writers might choose to paraphrase the statement(s). Regardless of the specific approach the writer chooses, the rule of thumb remains the same: good writers strive to create a clear and convenient reading experience for their audiences.

Dialogue Tags and Quotation Marks

A dialogue tag is phrase that opens into quoted language. The quoted language can be part of a quotation or–as the name “dialogue tag” implies, it can be a line of dialogue, framed in quotation marks. The dialogue tag consists of a noun or pronoun (a speaker) and a verb of speaking (or thinking). Dialogue tags are frequent in fiction, but they are not limited to fiction. Any time that we talk about what someone said, thought, or wrote, dialogue tags are useful. Follow a dialogue tag with a comma, just before giving the quotation:

Bob said, “We had better get home soon.”

Lauren replied, “I’m aware, but we have more errands to run.”

“I’m tired,” Bob sighed. “Will I ever make it home?”

“Nope!” Lauren joked.

In the dialogue above, there are several dialogue tags, marked in bold. Notice how dialogue tags are punctuated differently, depending on their placement relative to the lines of dialogue. If the dialogue tag comes directly before dialogue (the most standard placement), the dialogue tag is followed by a comma, as seen in these lines:

Bob said, “We had better get home soon.”

Lauren replied, “I’m aware, but we have more errands to run.”

Notice the dialogue tag in the third line. Notice how a comma takes the place of a period in the first quoted part, since the dialogue tag follows the dialogue material:

“I’m tired,” Bob sighed. “Will I ever make it home?”

In the fourth line, there is no comma between the quote and the dialogue tag because a comma does not replace exclamation points and question marks:

“Nope!” Lauren joked.

But if we reversed the order, we would introduce the quote with a comma directly after the dialogue tag:

Lauren joked, “Nope!”

Next Up: Quotation Marks And Other Punctuation

New writers often struggle with punctuating quotations. For example, should a period ending both a quotation and its larger sentence go inside the quotation marks, like this . . .

Lauren added, “Don’t worry: we’ll get home soon enough.”

. . . or should it go outside the quotation marks, like this . . .

Lauren added, “Don’t worry: we’ll get home soon enough”.

So which one is correct? The next article answers this question–and many more.

  •  I will have this article up and running soon.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Titles: Quotation Marks or Italics?

You may have noticed that writers frame the titles of other works in various ways. Maybe you’ve seen those other works’ titles framed in quotation marks, but maybe you’ve also seen them framed in italics and even underlined. So, with all of these ways to frame titles, what is the correct method?

The answer: it depends. This article will explain the three title framing methods and how to differentiate between them.

One Caveat: Style Guides And Writing in Specific Academic Formats

Before continuing this discussion of title formats, I must mention one caveat: this article (and my approach) follows with the approach of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the format typically used in English literature and many other disciplines in the liberal arts. Other styles, like that of the American Psychological Association (APA), have different rules for handling titles, so if you are writing for a course or a discipline requiring APA format (for example, social sciences like Sociology or Anthropology), make sure to consult an APA style guide. For all other writing situations, I find that following the MLA style creates increased clarity and consistency. (But hey–I’m an English professor, so I’m biased!)

Speaking of style guides, Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) has both an MLA and APA guide. These online style guides are edited to keep them up to date as the MLA and APA adopt new changes:

Quotation Marks Versus Italics

Anyway, back to quotation marks and italics. Here is the rule of thumb for making this decision:

The Title Rule of Thumb: Use “quotation marks” for shorter component works, and use italics (or underlining) for longer works (which often include component works).

What do I mean by “component works”? Here is an example:

In Sports Illustrated, I read an article entitled “Making the Cut,” which discusses the challenges faced by collegiate athletes looking to enter professional sports.

Sports Illustrated is the larger work (a collection of many articles), while the article, “Making the Cut,” is the component work.

This is also true of other forms:

  • Poems

Larger whole: A Poetry Anthology (the larger collection): (italicize)

Component: A poem in that anthology (the component work) (quotation marks)

Example: The Norton Anthology of American Literature includes Frost’s poems “Design” and “Mending Wall”–two of my favorites.

  • Books and Novels

Larger whole: A novel (italicize)

Component: A chapter title from the novel (“quotation marks”)

Example: My book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, includes a chapter entitled “The Myth of the Run-On Sentence.”

  • Newspaper Titles

Larger whole: A newspaper (italicize)

Component: An article in that newspaper (“quotation marks”)

Example: The article “What’s Wrong with Education in the City?” appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post.

Exceptions

There are a few exceptions. (Of course there are–the Grammar Gods can’t make things too easy for us!)

An epic poem (which you might think of as a book-length poem): italicize (even if it is a component of a larger collection)

A novella or short book: italicize (even if it is a component of a larger collection)

Still, even these exceptions follow the rule of thumb, since they might have their own component chapter titles, which–as expected–would be placed in quotation marks.

What About Underlining Titles?

Underlining is simply another way of italicizing. In handwriting, underlining stands in place of italics, since italicizing is difficult to do in handwriting, especially if one’s handwriting is already slanted to the right like italics. In past decades, style manuals for organizations like the Modern Language Association (MLA) required underlining–even in typed documents–for book titles and other titles that we italicize today. However, with the increased precision and font varieties of word-processing programs, we can italicize these titles. In fact, italics is often preferred since it has a cleaner, less distracting look than underlining.

Still, if you are producing a handwritten document like an in-class essay exam, underline in place of italics. In addition to publication titles for books, newspapers, etc., this is true for other applications of italics such as writing foreign words, emphasizing words with additional intonation, or writing about a word as a word.

What Should We Do if Italics Are Not Available?

Many websites do not include an italics feature. For example, italics are not (yet?) available on Facebook posts and comments. (This is actually one huge pet peeve I have with Facebook–they need italics!)

In the meantime, there are a few options when your range of punctuation or font editing tools are limited. One option is simply to put the normally italicized material in quotation marks. I do this with book titles. In some cases, such as adding intonation to a word, you might just try ALL CAPS–although in “normal” writing, using all caps represents SCREAMING or YELLING–which is stronger than the intonation that italics represent. Still, most people understand that since there are no italics on sites like Facebook, using all caps is allowable for intonation.

Now, as far as underlining titles is concerned, hard-nosed sticklers will place single underscore symbols both before and after a book title (or any normally italicized title) to show the italics/underlining:

I read _Moby Dick_ for the first time. It was much more fascinating than I thought it would be.

But I just think that looks strange. Ever aware of my audience, I don’t hesitate to use quotation marks in place of italics in informal online communications like Facebook posts:

I read “Moby Dick” for the first time. It was much more fascinating than I thought it would be.

This makes sense, in terms of audience. Chances are, those underscore-obsessed sticklers don’t even have Facebook accounts. (They are too busy watching early-twentieth-century French Impressionist films while tastefully sipping obscure expensive wines from the quaint countryside of Wherever.)

One Final Point: Frame Only the Titles of Other Works

I lost count long ago of the times when students would (erroneously) put their own essay titles in quotes. Remember: use quotation marks only when referring to the title of some outside work within your own writing. If it’s your essay or article title, it is framed as a title by virtue of being capitalized and/or in a larger font at the top of the first page. These framing conventions also depend on the writing context and the rhetorical situation. For example, the title of this article (yes, the one you’re reading right now) is in a larger font, but it also uses capital letters. However, in a formal essay for a college course, the student should not write the title in a larger, bolder font (although they should capitalize most words in the title).

Now, if you are referring to another work that you wrote, then treat that title as the title of another work by placing it in either quotes or italics. For example, if I am talking in this article about my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, I write it in italics to show that it is another work–even if it’s one of my own works.

Next Up: Quotation Marks Odds & Ends

The next article explains some nitty-gritty quotation mark matters. For example, how should we frame a quote within a quote? Are long quotations handled differently from short quotations? How can we introduce quoted lines of dialogue?  If you’re burning to know the answers to these questions (and I know you are!), then stay tuned.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Quotation Marks

Use quotation marks to frame quoted material. In academic and professional writing, this is typically material quoted from other writers or sources, but quotation marks can also be used to tell a story or to frame any thought spoken from another perspective. In fact, a writer might even use quotation marks to frame her own thoughts.

In this article, we will look at different applications of quotation marks.

Application 1: Quotation marks show word-for-word quotations from other sources.

Suppose that a writer is quoting a line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s momentous “I Have a Dream” speech:

As Americans consider hiring policies related to race and ethnicity, we should not forget the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who so passionately declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The quotation marks in the example above show readers which words belong to the writer and which ones belong to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Application 2: Quotation marks can be used to share dialogue from a story or real-life account.

The story might be fiction, but it can also be an account of a real past event or even a possible future event. Here is an example that might be drawn from the same ongoing essay example on equal employment policies:

In a recent conversation, a friend complained to me about how he felt hindered by hiring practices related to Affirmative Action. He said to me, “You know, it’s hard to be hired when you are a white male when other groups are always considered first.” Although I was sympathetic to his feelings of loss, I nonetheless felt compelled to point out his error. I responded, “I’m sorry, but the statistics don’t agree with you.” Like many (white male) job applicants, my friend’s feelings were sincere, but these views are informed only by individual experience and not by hard statistics and actual hiring practices.

(Note: The passage above is the introduction paragraph for the essay. In academic writing, the thesis (the main point the essay is attempting to support) is typically given at the end of the introduction, as seen in the example above. Although personal stories should be kept to a minimum in formal or academic writing, the well placed personal story often acts as an effective hook for capturing the reader’s interest at the outset of the essay.)

Here is an example of using quotation marks for a possible future event or statement:

At this point, some might say, “But hiring practices that prioritize minority groups also assume that minority groups cannot gain employment purely on their own skill or merit. These practices are a slap in the face to women and people of color.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Historically speaking, these hiring practices are in place because many companies were (and still are) unwilling even to consider hiring people of color. Also, many companies—if left to their own devices—would not hire women because those companies assume that women will cost them more money for paid maternity leave. For these reasons (and many more), we need hiring practices that protect minorities—not for a lack of merit on the part of the minority employee, but for the lack of ethical hiring practices among companies and corporations whose only focus is raising profits and lowering costs.

The technique used above, where the writer presents readers’ possible disagreements and then debunks those disagreements, is called addressing counterarguments. Some writing experts call these possible counterarguments “the conditions of rebuttal.” In persuasive writing, this is a useful technique because it acknowledges (and addresses) possible doubts and disagreements that some readers might have regarding the writer’s assertions. If readers do not feel that their own points are acknowledged and addressed, chances are, they will not be persuaded. Quotation marks are one way to frame the hypothetical counterarguments that some readers might raise. The quotation marks emphasize the point that the words are those of disagreeing readers and not those of the essayist.

Application 3: Quotation marks can frame thoughts—even those of the writer.

Although writers use quotation marks to frame words spoken or written by other people, writers can also use quotation marks to show their own thoughts. Here is an example:

After having this conversation, I reflected further on the larger implications of my friend’s misperception. I thought to myself, “I’ve heard these arguments before—and not just from friends.” Such arguments against equal hiring practices proliferate, both among everyday Americans and within the popular news media.

Application 4: Quotation marks set off phrases that are examples of language

Professor Hawkins advises her students to use transition phrases like “on the other hand” or “for example” to open new paragraph discussions in essays.

However, if the writer is presenting one word as an example of language, then use italics to set the word apart:

Professor Lubar showed Alex how to combine two closely related sentences using conjunctions like and or but.

Next Up: Quotation Marks and Titles

When writing about books, films, essays, newspaper articles, and the many other works that have titles, writers set off the titles of such works in various ways. One way is the use of quotation marks, but other titles require italics. And you may have even noticed that some titles are underlined. With all of these ways for framing titles, is there a system behind choosing the right method?

You bet! The next article shares that system. Stay tuned!

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to Christopher Altmanwriting this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Related Question: Is it “Everyday” or “Every Day”?

Every day and everyday: which one is the correct spelling? Although answering this question does not involve hyphens directly, it is worth mentioning in this discussion of hyphens, since it follows the same rules that hyphenated adjectives follow.

In terms of joining words, there are three forms:

  1. Open: A space is between the two words. They are not joined.
  2. Hyphenated: A hyphen joins the two words. (See the two previous articles for more on the hyphenated form.)
  3. Closed: The two words run seamlessly together as one word with no hyphen or space between.

The rules for the closed style often work the same as the rules for the hyphenated style, and this is true as well for deciding between everyday and every day: when writing the word everyday as a single adjective, write it together, with no space or hyphen. (In the list above, that is category 3—closed.)

Here is an example:

I hope to help everyday people improve their writing.

In the example above, everyday is a single adjective for the noun, people. Here it is, labeled, with the compound adjective underlined and the noun it modifies in italics:

I hope to help everyday people improve their writing.

However, if every is an adjective for the noun day, then do not write them together. They are separate parts of speech, so write them separately:

Bob worked every day this month. (Every is an adjective for day.)

The decision to hyphenate works the same way. Consider the terms low-income and low income:

Although he worked very hard, Bob earned a relatively low income. (Low is an adjective for the noun, income.)

Vs.

Low-income Americans like Bob should receive decent benefits. (Low-income is a single adjective for the noun, Americans.)

A Working Method for Deciding on Hyphenation

Of course, there are many more terms than everyday and low-income. How do we know if such terms should be open, hyphenated, or closed?

Well, as a general rule, the open form is easy: if the two words don’t combine into a single adjective for some other word, then we would use the open form. But, then again, there are always those odd compound nouns like dishwasher, football, and doorbell. A dictionary is always helpful for words like these, and most good word-processing programs come equipped with a dictionary.

As for deciding between the hyphenated and closed form for multiple-word adjectives . . . well, that’s a trickier matter. Still, here’s a tried-and-true approach that I use:

  1. Use a high-quality word-processing program like Microsoft Word or WordPerfect.
  2. Using the word-processing program, type the term in the closed form (no spaces or hyphens—just one seamless word).
  3. If spell check does not detect a spelling error in the closed form, then—chances are—you should use the closed form. From there, you can use the “Look up” option to look up the term in the word-processing program’s dictionary, just to be safe.
  4. If spell check detects an issue (in most programs, with a red underline), then right-click the word to see options the program offers as correct spellings. Chances are, one of those correct spellings is the hyphenated term. And even if the hyphenated term isn’t recognized by spell check, it is perfectly allowable for a writer to hyphenate two words into one if it serves clarity. (For example, see John Updike’s seventeen-word hyphenation, quoted near the end of the first hyphen article.)
  5. Finally, remember that no one will crucify you for hyphenating two words, so long as you do so to improve clarity. Remember the most important rule of writing: make things easy and clear for your readers.

Next Up: Quotation Marks

Well, that’s it for hyphens. It’s time to move on to quotation marks. Click the link below to learn more:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces Christopher Altmanand hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Hyphen Odds and Ends

In the previous article, we looked at the hyphen rule of thumb:

Use hyphens to show that a multiple-word adjective functions as a single unit.

That rule covers ninety percent of hyphen uses. The other ten percent seems confusing, because it involves a wide variety of rules and no-no’s. I do not want to bog you down in rules, dear reader. With that avoidance in mind, I will not list all of the rules and odd uses of hyphens here. However, I should touch on a few of the most frequent points of confusion.

If you are interested in learning more about the nitpicky rules of hyphens, I recommend C. Edward Good’s handbook, A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Although there are many good books that explain the general use of hyphens, no book I have encountered goes into the detail that Good’s book covers. Check it out.

In the meantime, here are a few further points on hyphen use. . . .

Don’t Confuse the Hyphen with Its Longer Cousin–the Dash.

The dash (which I used in this section’s title, just above) is twice as long as the hyphen. In fact, in most word-processing programs, the dash is formed by typing two hyphens in a row. Today, word-processing applications have nifty auto-format features that recognize two adjacent hyphens and run them together to form an uninterrupted dash, like the one seen in this section’s title. But this was not always the way dashes looked. In the ancient days of the typewriter, before the development of word-processing programs like MS Word (when early humans hunted the wooly mammoth), people simply typed two hyphens to represent the dash. The two hyphens would have a small space between them and would not appear as the single long line we are accustomed to seeing in twenty-first-century documents. (To my students’ amusement, this double-hyphen dash is what I call an old-school dash.)

The point of this spiel on hyphens and dashes? Simple: Many people see hyphens and call them dashes. The first step to understanding the difference between these two distinct forms of punctuation is to identify them correctly. The difference, after all, is clear:

– (hyphen)

— (dash)

While we are on the topic, what are dashes? Think of a dash as replacing a comma or colon to show a spontaneous change or interruption in a sentence. Its functions are completely different from those of the hyphen. Their only similarity is that they are both horizontal lines that occur between words.

Here are three previous Writer’s Toolbox articles that discuss dashes:

Use Your Own Judgment: Hyphenate to Avoid Confusion.

Although there may be no rule for hyphenating a given term, writers sometimes hyphenate to avoid ambiguity. In fact, for purposes of achieving clarity, writers sometimes choose to hyphenate even if it goes against the core rules of hyphenating. Here is an example (taken from Good’s book) of such a situation:

The article was thought provoking.

Is the writer saying . . .

People thought that the article was provoking (which means they probably didn’t like it)?

. . . or is the writer saying this? . . .

The article provoked thought in people (which means it was received well)?

Well, the original sentence (with no hyphens) states that people found the article provoking—that is, the article tended to anger readers. To express the second message—the idea that the article provoked thought—the writer would need to use a hyphen to connect thought and provoking:

The article was thought-provoking.

See how that works? Now the message is clear because thought-provoking acts as a single adjective to describe the article. Although we would not normally hyphenate a noun and an –ing word to create an adjective, we would need to do so in the sentence above. This example breaks the hyphenation rules to follow a higher rule: always make the message clear for your reader.

Another -ing term that I like to hyphenate is word-processing, when I use it as an adjective for another noun. Notice that in the first sentence, word is the adjective describing the (gerund) noun processing:

Ed admitted that he is not very good at word processing.

However, in this second sentence, I am using word-processing as a single adjective for programs:

Still, Ed is trying to improve his proficiency with word-processing programs like Microsoft Word.

Do Not Use Hyphens between –ly Adverbs and Adjectives.

In addition to modifying verbs, adverbs can modify adjectives. This is different from a multiple-word adjective. If you are confused as to what an –ly adverb is, it is a word that combines an adjective and an –ly suffix. This forms an adverb, which most often modifies verbs. In the same way that the adjective tells us what kind of noun it is, an adverb tells us how the verb is done. Remember, though, that adverbs can also modify adjectives. Whether the –ly adverb modifies a verb or an adjective, remember that it should not be hyphenated with the verb or adjective that follows it. Confusing? Here are some examples:

I hope to write a widely acclaimed book. (Not: widely-acclaimed book)

The barely new car broke down in a busy intersection. (Not: barely-new)

And, if all this talk of adjectives and adverbs has you confused, just remember:

If a word describing how some action is done ends in –ly, do not hyphenate it with the word that follows.

Got it? (Of course you do!)

Use Hyphens in Words That Would Otherwise Be Confused for Other Words.

Here are some examples of words that may need hyphens to clear up ambiguity:

re-create (to remake or simulate)

vs.

recreate (to have fun)

Or, how about this one:

un-ionize (a chemistry term, the opposite of ionize)

vs.

unionize (to form a union)

Use Hyphens to Form Some Compound Nouns.

In the previous hyphen article, we looked at compound adjectives: adjectives formed from multiple words. Hyphens also join some compound nouns: nouns that are formed by more than one word. Some is the key word.

Here are some examples of hyphenated nouns, some of which I have drawn from C. Edward Good’s chapter on hyphens:

Mother-in-law

President-elect

Great-grandfather

One-half

Self-control (Words beginning with self– are hyphened. See section below.)

Notice that these hyphenated nouns follow the same general rule as multiple-word hyphenated adjectives: the hyphens show that the joined words form a single unit (whether a noun or an adjective), and that the resulting hyphenated term is to be treated as one word.

Hyphen Finer Points

Here are some even finer points on hyphen use:

1. Use hyphens to express a range of numbers, essentially replacing the word through.

For tomorrow’s class, I have asked my students to read pages 12-35.

(Note: In a good word-processing program, this hyphen is actually a shorter version of the  dash called “an en dash.” This en dash is shorter than the normal em dash, but longer than a hyphen. The best way to form an en dash in most word-processing programs is by typing the two hyphens between the numbers, but with spaces before and after the double-hyphen. However, in many programs, the en dash is not an option, so a hyphen will have to do.)

2. Hyphens and fractions:

Hyphenate fractions that are spelled out and used as adjectives, but do not hyphenate the whole number (if there is one). The whole number should be isolated from the fraction part:

I ran two and one-half miles yesterday. I am not feeling well today.

(If this rule seems confusing, just remember that it reflects the numerical form: by being written to the left of the fraction, the whole number is separated from the fraction: 2½. The lack of hyphenation reflects the numerical separation.)

3. Hyphenate terms involving self + some other word.

Natalie is an intelligent but self-conscious student. I wish she would answer more questions.

However . . .

If any prefix is added before self, the word is simply written all together. We call this a closed compound word (as opposed to a hyphenated compound word). Look at the following examples:

selfish behavior (added –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)

unselfish behavior (added un- prefix and –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)

Or, to look at our previous hyphenated example:

self-conscious student (hyphenated)

vs.

unselfconscious student (prefix –un, so closed)

The Final Hyphen Rule: When It Comes to Hyphens, Dictionaries Are Our Friends.

There are many more odds-and-ends rules for hyphens. However, I write to express the core function of the hyphen: to join words for purposes of avoiding ambiguity. If you understand that rule, you’re golden.

Still, there are often no hard-and-fast rules for why one term might be hyphenated while another is not. Knowing whether to hyphenate such terms is ultimately a matter of consensus–a matter of people agreeing to a certain convention or practice. So, how do we know what the grammar gods have to say about hyphenating a given term?

Here is a nice trick for any hyphen situations I have not addressed here: if you are unsure whether a term should be hyphenated, consult a dictionary. Terms that are not hyphenated will have a dot between the syllables, while words that are hyphenated will have a hyphen in place of the dot. Look carefully, and you’ll see the difference.

So, dear reader, go out and hyphenate freely! And as you fill the world with hyphens, remember: it’s all about making things clear for your reader.

Next Up:

Related Question: Is It “Everyday” or “Every Day?”

In these hyphen articles, we have looked at how the hyphen joins two separate words into a single part of speech. In most cases, the hyphen functions to create multiple-word adjectives. However, there is one other way to join words: just join the terms completely into one seamless word. This practice accounts for the difference between terms like every day and everyday. Often my students (incorrectly) use these two terms interchangeably, but occasionally some students think to ask, “Which one is correct?–Should it be every day or everyday?” The answer: it depends! And what it depends on is precisely the same concept behind hyphenated multiple-word adjectives.

If this everyday usage bothers you seemingly every day, then you should check out the next article before we move on to other punctuation techniques. Here’s the link to that article:

Works Cited

Good, C. Edward. A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, Me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Herndon: Capitol Books, 2002. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces Christopher Altmanand hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Punctuation Toolbox: How to Use Hyphens

The hyphen—often mistaken for its longer cousin, the dash—is one of the most useful but overlooked punctuation techniques in the writing toolbox. Just to clear up this first point of ambiguity, I demand, dear reader, that from here forward you differentiate between the terms hyphen and dash. Look:

–      (A hyphen is short. It’s formed by hitting the hyphen key once.)

—     (A dash is long. It’s formed by hitting the hyphen key twice–with no spaces.)

Anyway, I stated that the hyphen is one of the most useful punctuation techniques in the writing toolbox. Don’t believe me? Consider the following sentence. Do you see any issues with it?

I purchased two foot long beams from the hardware store.

What am I saying here? Am I saying this ? . . .

I purchased two beams, each of which was one foot long.

. . . or am I saying this? . . .

I purchased an unexpressed number of beams, each of which was two feet long.

Reread the original sentence. Which message does it give?

The answer is that we don’t know. Besides completely rewriting the sentence, what is the best way to make the message of the sentence clear? If you’re thinking, “the hyphen,” you’re right on the money. The hyphen clears all ambiguity by telling the reader how to group the words.

Check it out:

I purchased two foot-long beams from the hardware store. (Two beams, each of which is a foot long.)

I purchased two-foot-long beams from the hardware store. (We don’t know how many beams there are, but we do know that each beam is two feet long.)

Now that we have the hyphen working for us to clear up ambiguity, we can specify both quantity and length for that second version. Let’s say there are five beams:

I purchased five two-foot-long beams from the hardware store. (Now we have five beams, each of which has a length of two feet.)

See how that works? Notice that the terms foot-long and two-foot-long act as adjectives—words that describe nouns (things). The adjective rule of thumb is good to keep in mind: an adjective tells us what kind of thing (or noun) it is. Consider our example above. What kind of beam is it? It’s a two-foot-long beam.

So, although hyphens have many odd uses, the main application of the hyphen is to provide clarity by binding together two or more words into a single adjective.

Confusing? Here are some examples, with the multiple-word adjective underlined and the noun it modifies in italics.

Justin’s nine-year-old son is named Dante. (Adjective: nine-year-old. Noun: son)

James Joyce, the twentieth-century Irish author, spent much of his life abroad. (Adjective: twentieth-century. Noun: author)

In the second example above, I hyphenate the words twentieth and century to show that they function as one unit: a single adjective. So why didn’t I include Irish in the hyphenated construction as well?

Simple: it’s a separate adjective. Twentieth-century and Irish are two distinct adjectives, both of which apply to James Joyce. In essence, the sentence states that James Joyce is (1) a twentieth-century author and (2) an Irish author. A simpler example is seen in the sentence “Bob drives a big red truck.” The truck is big and it is red. Both adjectives apply to the truck, but they apply separately, which is why we would not say, “Bob drives a big-red truck” (unless he delivers chewing gum). The two-word adjective twentieth-century works the same way as one-word adjectives like big or red.

See how that works?

How Long Can Hyphenated Multiple-Word Adjectives Be? An Example from John Updike

We can use hyphens to join two words into a single adjective, as seen in the expression “low-income Americans,” but we can also combine three words into a single adjective, as seen in the expressions “two-inch-long nails” or “nine-year-old son.” Can we use hyphens to combine more than three words?

Sure we can! Here’s one of my favorite multiple-word adjectives, from John Updike’s short story “A & P”:

She kept her eyes moving across the racks, and stopped, and turned so slow it made my stomach rub the inside of my apron, and buzzed to the other two, who kind of huddled against her for relief, and then they all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle.

That’s one heck of an adjective! And, yes, these seventeen words function as a single adjective for the noun, aisle. And we know that these seventeen words form one adjective because Updike hyphenated them. This exhaustively detailed adjective acts as a great technique for characterizing the story’s protagonist and narrator, Sammy, who is an employee of his town’s grocery store. We know that Sammy has become just a bit too familiar with the store, and this excessive familiarity implies that Sammy is tired of working there—or at least that he is wanting more out of life than this painfully familiar scene can offer.

With the examples above in mind, here is a rule of thumb for hyphenation:

Hyphen Rule of Thumb: Use hyphens to create multiple-word adjectives.

If you know this one simple practice, you know ninety percent of all there is to know about hyphens. (Congratulations!) Still, there’s that other ten percent. Like any technique, hyphens have their finer points and irregular occurrences.

If you are curious about those finer points, click the link below to read the next article:

Works Cited

Updike, John. “A & P.” Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. Reissue Edition. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1996. 187-196. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing Christopher Altmanthis blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).