Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Five Most Misused Punctuation Marks

Whenever I discuss writing on this blog, I always prefer to cite something—a book, a blog post, a magazine article—to give the information validity. After all, I’m not a published author, and until I am, anything I say is easily dismissible.

However, one thing I do know is grammar. I’m the kind of person who, when friends wrote me notes in junior high, would correct the writing with a red pen and hand the note back (needless to say I got a lot fewer notes this way). I’m the kind of person who knew how to Reed-Kellogg diagram a sentence by the age of seven (big thank you to my parents for wringing me through private school, where morning drills included reciting all prepositions and auxiliary verbs in alphabetical order). I’m the kind of person who studied editing in college and enjoyed it.

That being said, today I want to call out what I consider to be the five most misused punctuation marks in American English—the marks I tend to fix the most when a new document arrives at my desk.

The Apostrophe

 Lynne Truss has a lot to say about apostrophes.

Apostrophes are used to show one of two things: ownership or omission.

Mary Sue’s dog can’t ride a bike.

I frequently catch apostrophes trying to hide amidst words that are merely plural. These sorts of things make Lynne Truss cry.

Being pro-Chicago, I always add the “s” to a word that already ends in it.

Joe Nicholes’s house
The waitress’s apron

However, AP doesn’t use the extra “s”. Sad, I know.

The Hyphen

The hyphen is not an em dash. If I could drill one thing into the minds of mankind, it would be this. The hyphen is not an em dash. (More on that later.)

Hyphens connect two words acting as a compound, unless one of those words is an adverb.

Chocolate-covered raisins
Thirty-five soldiers
Deliciously sweet cookie

Note that, unless it’s really aesthetically appealing, the second word in a hyphenated phrase is not capitalized unless it’s a proper noun.

A New Study in Enterprise-class Reliability
Branching Out: Enrich Your Life with Reed-Kellogg Diagrams

These are the two hyphen rules I see broken the most. To learn more about hyphens, buy a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style check out this site.

The Em Dash

Otherwise known as the most beautiful punctuation ever invented.

Two wrongs may not make a right, but two hyphens can make an em dash. When writing in Microsoft Word, just type “--” for an em dash and Word will convert it for you.* The Mac shortcut for an em dash is shift+option+minus key; for PC it's alt+0151.

Em dashes are the magical things that can replace just about any intermediary punctuation mark. Commas, semicolons, colons, parentheses . . . it’s a beautiful thing.

Mike couldn’t believe so many animals—parakeets, lions, bears, fish—could fit into one backpack.
Sam ate bananas every night for dinner—she had grown paranoid after learning of her potassium deficiency.
“What I mean to say—if you would only—oh, forget about it.”

I repeat, a hyphen is not an em dash, and em dashes don’t have spaces around them. They’re friendly marks and like to cuddle close with their word-friends.

The En Dash

The en dash is the most forgotten punctuation mark. En dashes are used to show a range in numbers.

12–45 donuts

En dashes can be made on a Mac by hitting command+subtraction symbol (on the 10-key), or on a PC by hitting alt+0150.

(But let’s be honest, if you use a hyphen in place of an en dash, only the most anal of grammarians will notice.)

Single Quotation Marks

When I was younger, I thought single quotation marks (‘) indicated thought, as you can tell if you read any of my early fanfiction (which I hope you never find!). Single quotation marks are actually used to show dialogue within dialogue.

“But then he said, ‘Your mom’s a goat!’ and ran away laughing.”

Bonus Mark: The Colon

The one thing I want to say about the colon is not to use it after verbs or prepositions (UNLESS the verb or preposition ends an independent clause. Though you shouldn't be ending those with prepositions anyway). Dumb rule, I agree, but it’s there.

Photo Credit

*You may notice a plethora of “--" throughout my blog posts. Those are the posts I draft directly in Blogger, which unfortunately does not have em-dash–conversion abilities.


  1. I learned about em dashes from you. And I'm all for adding the extra 's', too.

  2. With apostrophes, I'm AP all the way. Forget that dang extra s, it just adds clutter! And I had never even heard of an en-dash until now. As far as everything else goes, I use it all perfectly. :) We were such good roommates!

  3. No extra s for me! Silly things. :P

    And em dashes and I are BFFs--I use 'em like they're going out of style. 83

  4. Thanks, Charlie. Just bookmarked this page.

  5. Do I still get to be the em dash whore?

  6. En dashes are also used to show other types of ranges, not just ones with numbers: The park will be open June–August. It is also used in open compounds, like pre–Civil War era, and sometimes to show equality between two objects, like Mexican–American border

    En dashes can also be typed on a Mac using option+hyphen, and em dashes using option+shift+hyphen. (You should have learned this in my class, Charlie. :) So you can type them directly into Blogger. When you let MS Word auto-replace two hyphens, it actually changes them to Symbol font along with making an em dash (or at least it used to). It's much better to do it yourself and use the correct font.

    1. Forgive my ignorance, Marny. :) I will repent and revise my dashing ways!

  7. I still don't know how to Reed-Kellogg diagram a sentence. :) But I'm a grammar Nazi too. Facebook drives me nuts!

  8. I just bookmarked this page. I abuse hyphens. Please don't think less of me. Also, I'm logging on to amazon right now to buy the Chicago Manual of Style. You've broken me... (I say this smiling)

    1. HA! This made me laugh. My friend and I call the book "Bob," or the "Big Orange Bible." ;)

  9. Thankfully, I've become better with punctuation, but I do tend to overuse the comma...which, I guess, is better than under-using it...right? ;)

  10. Em dashes are my best friend. The mark that always bothers me is the semicolon; people use that to put together two dependent clauses, which makes me crazy.


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