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).

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).

Avoiding Ellipsis Confusion: Placing the Ellipsis in Brackets

Now, what happens if the original quote already has an ellipsis in it? What if the original writing uses, say, a stylistic ellipsis to show a hesitation? How do I show that the ellipsis I added is mine, and not the original writer’s? This causes quite a problem, but the punctuation gods (in their infinite wisdom) solved it easily: I can place brackets around an ellipsis to show that the ellipsis shows an omission and is not part of the original writing. This bracket technique is especially useful when a quoted passage already has an ellipsis of hesitation, and the writer who is quoting includes a second ellipsis to show an omission.

While we’re on the topic of brackets [which, by the way, look like this], I should mention here the Bracket Rule of Thumb: whenever you quote another text and you put something in brackets (whether an ellipsis, a comma, a word, a sentence, or even a single letter), it says, “Hey, this stuff in the brackets is mine—not the original writer’s.” This is the brackets’ function with the ellipsis as well: the brackets show that the ellipsis is that of the person doing the quoting, and not of the original writer. (If you want to learn other ways to use brackets, stay tuned: I will discuss brackets in an upcoming “Punctuation Toolbox” article.)

With the Bracket Rule of Thumb in mind, I tend to avoid the bracketed ellipsis in citing popularly known quotes, since most readers will recognize missing parts as they are familiar with the quote. Still, if you are a better-safe-than-sorry writer, feel free to use the bracketed ellipsis to show all of your omissions.

Here is an example of a bracketed ellipsis. The following quoted passage comes from the introduction to Richard Lederer and John Shore’s entertaining punctuation handbook, Comma Sense. (I recommend this book if you want to take your punctuation knowledge to the next level, while enjoying a great read.)

Notice that the original ellipsis—the one Lederer and Shore insert to show a stylistic hesitation—is not bracketed, and that my ellipses of omission are bracketed:

Language experts agree that one of the primary reasons people so often associate commas with comas is that computers have somehow driven a wedge between the “Think/Take Care/Don’t Embarrass Your Mother” part of everyone’s brain and the “Freakin’ GO For It, dude!!” part. [. . .] Young people today [. . .] don’t read or write essays. They don’t write letters, or stories, or . . . travelogues. They don’t even write words. They text-message. They text-message a lot. And to say that messages delivered via cell-phone “text” tend to lack punctuation is like saying that yaks tend to be hairy, or that professional basketball players tend to be tall.

Because of the brackets, the reader knows which ellipses are mine, and which belong to Lederer and Shore. (Nifty, huh?)

Next Up: Getting the Ellipsis Right

Unlike most punctuation symbols, the ellipsis is made up of multiple symbols (that is, three periods). This leads to a great deal of confusion regarding how exactly the ellipsis is to be written. Is it always written with three dots, or can there be four–or five? Are the dots written together, or should they have spaces between them? And, how do we deal with an ellipsis that occurs at the end of a sentence–or, worse yet, one that occurs directly beside a comma? Should we write the ellipsis before the comma, or after it?

Are these questions keeping you awake at night? (I hope not.) Well, if they are, stay tuned for the next article! . . .

  • I will post this article soon.

Works Cited

Lederer, Richard and John Shore. Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

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).

The Semicolon Exception

Just before we move on to discuss other punctuation techniques, I want to share one more application of the semicolon. This particular application is the one exception to the core semicolon rule that semicolons combine only complete sentences. Here is the core rule for semicolon placement, followed by the exception:

The core rule: A semicolon combines two complete sentences. If you cannot place a period there, you should not be able to place a semicolon there either. Do not use a semicolon to combine parts that are not full sentences.

The exception: You can use semicolons to combine non-sentence parts for purposes of avoiding comma confusion if those non-sentence parts contain internal commas.

So now here is the full rule for the semicolon:

The full rule: In most cases, use a semicolon to combine only two complete sentences. Do not use the semicolon to combine non-sentence parts, unless those parts contain internal commas that would lead to comma confusion.

Got it? (Of course you do!) Now, let’s look at an example of both a standard semicolon use (combining two complete sentences) and an example that illustrates the exception. First, here is a standard semicolon combination. Notice that the semicolon combines two complete sentences (also called “independent clauses”):

I enjoy the tranquility of bass fishing; simply sitting around waiting for a bite is a great pleasure.

Structure: Sentence ; Sentence

Now, here’s a sentence that expresses the exception—the specialized use of the semicolon:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake; I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

Structure: Non-Sentence Introduction ; Sentence

Now, if we followed the core semicolon rule that we should not place a semicolon between a clause and a sentence (and instead place a comma there), we would end up with this:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

Do you see the problem? This sentence is now ambiguous. Is it saying this . . .

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

. . . or this? . . .

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

In other words, the reader does not know which way to apply the conditional if clause. Does it apply backwards to the although introductory clause, or is it part of the statement, “I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing”?

Although I enjoy fishing for bass ? if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake ?→ I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

Which way does that conditional if clause go? Without further clarification, there’s no way to know for sure. The semicolon placement clears up this comma confusion. If we intend the first message above, we would place the semicolon this way:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake; I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

This semicolon placement groups the conditional if clause backwards with the first part. We know that the if here applies to the introductory clause, “although I enjoy fishing for bass.”

Now let’s write it the other way by replacing a different comma with a semicolon:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass; if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

(Now the conditional if clause applies forward to the second part, “I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.”)

And that, dear reader, is how and why we can use the semicolon to combine even non-sentence clauses and phrases within sentences.

Other Techniques for Avoiding Comma Confusion

Although the semicolon is one great way to avoid comma confusion, it is not the only way. When I write handouts for my freshman students (many of whom have no idea how to place semicolons), I do not like to break the core semicolon rule, even if I am appropriately following the exception, as seen in the examples above. Most of my students are unfamiliar with the exception, and I am already trying my damnedest simply to teach them the core semicolon rule: the notion that a semicolon is used, first and foremost, to combine two complete sentences. Given this particular writing situation, I must write for my audience and for my larger purpose: to teach a group of freshman students basic practices.

So how can I avoid comma confusion without employing the semicolon exception? Simple: I just use alternative punctuation like dashes and parentheses. Let’s try dashes first:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass—if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake—I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

That’s much clearer, and I didn’t have to break the core semicolon rule to achieve that clarity. Now let’s try parentheses:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass (if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake), I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

I like this parenthetical version a bit better than the dash version, for two reasons:

  1. Unlike the closing dash, the closing parenthesis does not replace the comma, so the comma appearing directly after the parenthetical clause drives home the point that the parenthetical clause is grouped backwards with the first part of the sentence. By that comma following the parenthetical clause, the first part of the sentence swallows up the parenthetical clause.
  2. Parentheses create a subtle, calm tone, whereas dashes create a loud, almost exclamatory tone. Think about what the clause is discussing: calmness and tranquility. By using parentheses, I am letting my style (a calm tone) reflect my content (a calm lake).

Dashes, by the way, are more fitting to show a sudden interruption: the lack of calmness. Consider this sentence:

I was driving through my neighborhood on my way to work when—suddenly and without warning—a child on a bicycle darted out in front of my car, making me spill coffee all over myself as I swerved to avoid him.

In the same way that the child interrupted my commute—making me spill coffee all over myself—so too does the interrupting phrase interrupt the flow of the sentence. I am writing about my experience, yes, but I am also simulating that experience for the reader by making the reader feel what I felt (well, minus the feeling of warm coffee on the crotch and the experience of having to explain to my 10-AM class that I didn’t have the kind of “accident” they thought I had).

At this point, I bet many readers are thinking, “Chris, you are thinking way too far into this, man! Is that really the kind of stuff you think about when you write?”

You bet! If you haven’t looked at your writing in this way, I challenge you to begin thinking about it more deeply. Sure: you won’t do this with every sentence you write (and neither do I), but when such opportunities present themselves, take them. And as you do, consider how writing becomes a way not only to share your ideas, but also to simulate the very experiences, concepts, and events you are describing. When you write this way, you aren’t merely giving your readers a piece of writing; you’re giving them an experience.

Here’s one more example before I end my ramble on dashes:

The opposing team’s center—a hulking six-foot-eleven monster of a man who blocked the way completely with both his bulk and his height—kept Tom from following through on his original plan of driving in for a dunk.

Now under most circumstances, that’s a bad sentence. It’s hard to read because the interrupting phrase is so long that reconnecting with the sentence’s original point is difficult. Normally, I would advise the writer to cut the length of the interrupting phrase. But why does that excessive interruption work here, in this particular sentence?

I’ll leave you with that question, as you consider just how far down the rabbit hole goes. . . .

Next up:

The Poor Ellipsis: Overworked and Misnamed

The next technique to add to your punctuation toolbox is the ellipsis. You may not recognize that name (ellipsis), because many people call it by other names like three dots or even dot dot dot. The next set of articles will discuss the ellipsis’s purpose and how new writers often misuse it. Click the link below to learn more about this specialized but handy punctuation technique. . . .

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).

Semicolons: Why Use Them?

Even if they understand its grammatical placement, many of my students overuse the semicolon. They do so because they have just learned how to use the semicolon, so it’s a bright and shiny new toy for them to play with. My students too often have a sense that semicolons look fancier than periods and commas, which leads them to the next false assumption that those who use semicolons must look smarter, in the eyes of readers, than those who just use dull old periods and commas.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The semicolon—although it does have a specialized place in our writing—is nothing special. In addition to the grammatical conditions that allow for it (appearing between two complete sentences), the semicolon also follows some stylistic criteria: the sentences it combines should be closely related such that (1) the two sentences should share a strong—almost inextricable—connection of ideas and (2) that connection is so loud and clear that it does not need to be explained or spelled out with a sentence-combining word like and or because.

These are the stylistic considerations of the semicolon. While many people understand the grammatical considerations, they do not consider the stylistic considerations.

Confused? Some examples will help. Consider the following semicolon combinations. All of the examples are grammatically correct, but not all of them are stylistically fitting. Can you tell which ones are correctly used and which ones are overused? Take a look (and don’t scroll down and cheat!). . . .

1. The summers in New York State are pleasant; the temperature is usually in the high 80s.

2. I enjoy bass fishing while visiting South Carolina; Italian restaurants are good.

3. My colleague Malkiel is our college’s Writing Coordinator; our college has a good library.

4. My seven-month-old son likes to be near me; he’s sleeping next to me as I write this article.

5. I love explaining punctuation; however, I look forward to addressing other writing topics.

Semicolon Answer Key:

1. The summers in New York State are pleasant; the temperature is usually in the high 80s.

This semicolon placement is fitting. The second sentence is a direct clarification of the first sentence—a more specific way of saying the same thing.

2. I enjoy bass fishing while visiting South Carolina; Italian restaurants are good.

This is not an appropriate semicolon placement. There is no direct connection between the idea that “Italian restaurants are good” and the idea that I enjoy bass fishing in South Carolina. This disconnection is a bit obvious (since this sentence is a warm-up), and really these two sentences would not even be adjacent to one another without some connective explanation to bridge the two ideas.

3. My colleague Malkiel is our college’s Writing Coordinator; our college has a good library.

This is not an appropriate semicolon placement, but indeed this one is trickier than the previous example of semicolon overuse. In this example both sentences involve “our college, but beyond that, there is no direct connection between the notion that Malkiel is the Writing Coordinator and the college having a good library. (Now, if I had been writing about how the college has a good writing program, the semicolon would be appropriate.)

4. My seven-month-old son likes to be near me; he’s sleeping next to me as I write this article.

This is an appropriate semicolon placement. The second sentence is evidence of the first sentence. These two sentences go together and are inseparable—just like me and my son.

5. I love explaining punctuation; however, I look forward to addressing other writing topics.

This is an appropriate semicolon placement. Notice the conjunctive adverb however after the semicolon. Recalling my previous article on semicolons, the semicolon can (and in most cases, should) precede a conjunctive adverb to combine two sentences. However, you can follow a period with a conjunctive adverb, as I did in this sentence. Most of the time, though, conjunctive adverbs like however express a close connection between the two sentences, so the semicolon is preferable.

Next Up: The Semicolon Exception

Let’s review the two requirements for placing a semicolon:

Grammatical Requirement: A semicolon combines two complete sentences. If you cannot place a period there, you should not be able to place a semicolon there either–with only one exception. (See below and see the next article.)

Stylistic Requirement: A semicolon’s purpose is to combine two sentences that are closely and inextricably connected such that they should flow together in a grammatical, syntactical sense. If there is no such connection between these two sentences, then they should not be combined with a semicolon.

Now, there is one more grammatical situation that can call for a semicolon, and you might think of that situation as an exception to the grammatical criterion that a semicolon must fall between two complete, standalone sentences. Indeed, there are rare cases where we can place a semicolon to combine non-sentence parts.

Want to learn more about that exception—about the specialized function of the semicolon? (Of course you do!) Click the link below to read on.

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).