Common English Errors: Incorrect Punctuation (updated 25 Jan 2016) Featured

Poor punctuation, as with poor spelling and poor grammar, can damage your credibility and, therefore, affect your persuasiveness as a writer. Take care with the following punctuation marks.

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First of all, the dashes. There are three types of dashes: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash.


Hyphens (-)

Hyphens are the babies of the dash world. They are short, cute, and tiny. You type them using the - key next to the 0 (zero) key on your keyboard. In general, hyphens are used in the middle of words. You'll see them in compound words (eg, long-term, cabinet-maker, and middle-class). They are also often used after prefixes, to make their meaning clearer, especially to break up two of the same vowel appearing one after the other (eg, anti-inflammatory, de-energise). They are used to connect a word to a number, such as in pre-2000. They can also be used to break words in paragraphs, at the end of lines of text, showing where a single word runs from one line to the next.

En dashes (–)

En dashes (or en rules) are different from hyphens. They are the mummies of the dash world, bigger than a hyphen, but about half the size of an em dash, and about the width of a capital N. You can type them using the "option -" key (on a Mac) or ALT + 0150 (on a PC). En dashes have several purposes. They can stand for and or or, in preference to the slash–solidus (/). The en dash is a linking device (eg, hop on the Sydney–Brisbane train). It is used when joining two words that still retain their individual meanings (unlike a hyphen, which links subsections of words)—for example, Asia–Pacific region, Parent–Teacher Association. En dashes are also used for date spans, such as 1998–1999, and page spans (pages 76–91). An en dash is also used as a minus sign. British usage tends to put a space on either side of an en dash (just – like – this) while in America is it more common to not have any space on either side (just–like–this).

Em dashes (—)

Em dashes (or em rules) are the daddy dashes. They are the longest ones, roughly the width of a capital M (hence their name). They are usually typed with a key combination such as shift–option–hyphen (on a Mac) or ALT + 0151 (on a PC)They are not the same as hyphens. Do not use a hyphen when you mean an em dash. Although the em dash has other purposes as well, it often indicates a break in a thought—do you like this as my example?—whereas a hyphen has a completely different purpose (see above). The em dash can set apart parenthetic elements (instead of using parenthesis, like these). It can also introduce an explanatory phrase. Most style guides say you should not use a space before and after the em dash, but the main thing is to be consistent. Also note that if you have 3 em dashes in the one sentence, then you need to rephrase that sentence; avoid too many em dashes.


Pop quiz!

Test your understanding of hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—) by choosing whether the following sentences are correctly punctuated or not. Where you think the sentence is wrong, suggest the correct form of punctuation.

1. I have never felt more bitter - except for that period in 1996 when I lost the leadership - than I do today.
2. Pre-1996, I had no doubt about the loyalty of my team.
3. The budget for the financial year 1995-6 planted the seeds of my demise.
4. I should have known that the matter of Federal–State relations would be so sensitive.
5. By the end, I had no regrets – I saw the end coming anyway.


1. Wrong. The hyphen (-) should be an em dash (—).
2. Correct.
3. Wrong. The hyphen (-) should be an en dash (–).
4. Correct.
5. Wrong. The en dash (–) should be an em dash (—).

Ellipsis (...)

An ellipsis is a series of 3 dots. It is typed using "option-semicolon" (on Mac keyboards) and ALT + 0133 (on PCs). Ellipses have several purposes. They can indicate a missing word, phrase, or sentence from a quoted passage; or a pause; or an unfinished thought…But ellipses always comprise 3 dots (…)—not 2 dots (..), or 4 dots (....), or any other random number of dots (.......); just 3 dots. The perfect ellipsis is equally spaced between the before- and after-text. But you can use a space before and after an ellipsis, or omit the space, depending on your style guide, as long as you are consistent.

Slashes (/)

The slash/solidus should be avoided as much as possible. Where you can, write and or or instead (but never write and/or). Or use an en dash (–). If you must use the slash or solidus—for example, when writing about the financial year 2010/11—then make sure you do not add a space before or after the slash. Write "2010/11", not "2010 / 11".

Serial commas

Serial commas are controversial. But I am all in favour of the serial comma, unless their inclusion introduces ambiguity. Basically, a serial comma is an extra comma included before and in a series. For example, oranges, apples, and pears has the serial comma; but oranges, apples and pears omits the serial comma. The extra comma makes these series easier to read and, more often than not, prevents ambiguity. The serial comma is also known as the Oxford comma.


Exclamation marks (!)

I usually don't like exclamation marks! They usually indicate overstatement! And overstatement is usually much less persuasive than understatement. But, if you do use exclamation marks, then you should usually use only one exclamation mark at a time. Do not pile exclamation marks on top of each other!!!! Also, do not include a space before the exclamation mark !


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Last modified on Monday, 25 January 2016 00:12
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