A Guide to Commonly-Confusing Punctuation: Part 2

Do dashes depress you? Are you boggled by brackets? Never fear! Part one of this guide to commonly confusing punctuation explored three of the most commonly-confusing punctuation marks, and clarified why and how they are used. Now it’s time to study up on the em dash, the en dash, the hyphen, and the bracket. Read on for part two of this guide to commonly-confusing punctuation:

1. Em dash

The em dash is a long dash (—) that can be used to separate a thought from a sentence. Consider this example: “After spending two hours delivering papers—all 25 of them—he went home for lunch.” In this sentence, the em dash is used in place of parentheses to include optional information in a sentence that would have been clear without it. The em dash can also stand alone, like this: “It took two hours to deliver the papers—all 25 of them.”

2. En dash

The en dash (–) is another commonly-confusing punctuation mark. It looks very much like an em dash, except that it is slightly shorter. The en dash is used to indicate time spans or date ranges, such as the 2011–2012 school year. It can also be used to show a connection, such as a New York–Los Angeles flight.

3. Hyphen

Unlike the previous two dashes, the hyphen has one specific use, which is to create compound words or terms. For example, you would use a hyphen to form words or terms like check-in or to-do. In some cases, hyphens are used to compound several words, like mid-to-late. This arrangement indicates that these three words go together and are referring to a single thing, like “mid-to-late century.” Improving your understanding of punctuation and your writing skills won't happen overnight, but this list of simple ways to improve your writing skills will help you get on the right track.

4. Brackets

Like the hyphen, brackets – or [ ] – tend to have one specific use, which is to indicate additional or added information. For example, if you needed to shorten a quotation, you might use brackets to add a certain word so the quotation still makes sense, like this: “As a student, Addams revealed other traits… [which] seemed to result from her considerable intellect.” In this example, the ellipsis (…) indicates that a portion of the original text has been removed, and the brackets indicate that a word was added in order for the statement to flow properly.

Another common use of brackets is in quotations where the term sic is placed within the brackets. The term sic is used to indicate that the preceding word or phrase is spelled incorrectly, contains an improper use of grammar, or is otherwise used unusually, and it is placed in brackets to indicate that it has been added to the quotation by an editor or someone other than the original writer.

Brackets can also be used to add information inside a set of parentheses. This avoids having parentheses within parentheses, which can be confusing to the reader.  

There are many more complex and case-specific uses of the above commonly-confusing punctuation marks, but these basic rules should help you with your writing. You may also find these 7 tips to improve your grammar skills helpful as well. It is important to note that, especially in the case of the dashes, some of these marks are not used in traditional ways when utilized online. Website coding and font may keep a writer from using an em dash, so do not be surprised if you see several hyphens or an en dash with spaces around it. A writing tutor can help you master these concepts and provide guidance in other areas on your writing as well.