How to use the dash ?

The dash has only one major use:

  • To use in pairs to separate a strong interruption from the rest of the sentence (a strong interruption, as opposed to a weak interruption, is one which forcefully disrupts the flow of the sentence and, as such, it usually contains a verb rather simply being a phrase) [All nations desire econmic growth – some even achieve it – but it is easier said than done.]

Note: Only one dash is used if the strong interruption comes at the beginning or the end of the sentence. [We earnestly desire peace for all nations of the world – and we will work hard for it.]
There are several minor uses of the dash:

  • To add emphasis or drama [He said that he would go – and he did.]
  • To indicate a range of numbers [900-1000]
  • To link two connected words [the Sydney-Melbourne train]
  • To indicate an abrupt break in thought.
    Example: The truth is–and you probably know it–we can’t do without you.
  • Use a dash to mean namely, in other words, or that is before an explanation.
    Example: It was a close call–if he had been in a worse mood, I don’t think I’d still be here.

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How to use the hyphen ?

There are two main uses of the hyphen:

  • In writing compound words that would be ambiguous, hard to read or excessively long [no-smoking sign and black-cab driver]
  • To indicate that a long word has been broken off at the end of a line (however, this should be avoided if possible)
  • A minor use of the hyphen is:

    To avoid what is called letter collision {de-ice or shell-like] Other uses of hyphen are as follows:

    1. Use a hyphen to divide a word at the end of a line.

    Example: If you are not sure where to hyphen- ate a word, look it up in the dictionary.

    2. Hyphenate a compound adjective when it precedes the word it modifies.

    Examples: fast-moving train, long-distance runner.

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    How to use the apostrophe ?

    The apostrophe is the most misused punctuation mark in the English language by far, but this should not be the case since there are only two major uses of the apostrophe:

  • To indicate a contraction which is a form of word in which one or more letters are omitted
  • [it’s instead of it is or aren’t instead of are not]

  • To indicate possession
  • [Roger’s web site]

    Note 1: The first use of the apostrophe should usually be avoided in formal writing.

    Note 2: The second use of the apostrophe involves placing the apostrophe at the end of the word when the word is plural and ends in ‘s’ [workers’ rights].

    Other uses of apostrophe are:

    1. To form the possessive case of a singular noun, add an apostrophe and an s. Examples: Bob’s car; One’s home. If the addition of an “s” produces an awkward sound, add only the apostrophe. Usually, this is when there is already a double “s” sound. Examples: Moses’; for old times’ sake; for goodness’ sake.

    2. To form the possessive case of a plural noun, add an apostrophe after the s. Example: girls’ teams. If the plural form of the word does not end in s, add an apostrophe and an s. Example: women’s team.

    3. Use an apostrophe to show where letters have been omitted in a contraction. Examples: can’t = cannot; it’s = it is.

    Note 3: There are three very common misuses of the apostrophe.

  • The most frequent misuse is in writing plural forms, especially in signs and notices, but it is totally wrong to write pizza’s or CD’s or even in English English 1990’s (this is the usage in American English).
  • The second misuse, which is almost as common, is it’s instead of its to indicate possession [It’s wrong to hit its head].
  • The final misuse involves confusion between ‘who’s’ which is an abbreviation of ‘who is’ [the man who’s coming to visit] and ‘whose’ which shows possession [the man whose house is over there].

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    How to use the semicolon ?

    The semicolon has two similar major uses:

  • To join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when the two sentences are too closely related to be separately by a full stop and there is no connecting word which would require a comma such as ‘and’ or ‘but’
  • [It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.]

  • To join two complete sentences into a single written sentence where the second sentence begins with a conjunctive adverb such as ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘accordingly’, ‘consequently’, or ‘instead’
  • [I wanted to make my speech short; however, there was so much to cover.]

    Note: In these uses, the semicolon is stronger than a comma but less final than a full stop.

    There is a minor use of the semicolon:

    To separate items in a list when one or more of those items contains a comma

    [The speakers included: Tony Blair, the Prime Minister; Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education & Skills.]

    Other uses of semicolon are:

    1. Use a semicolon between independent clauses not joined by and, but, nor, for, yet, and so. Example: Read what you’ve written; don’t just pass it on.

    2. Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by such words as for example, besides, nevertheless, etc. Example: I think he’s right; however, it’s difficult to know.

    3. Use a semicolon between items in a series if the items contain commas.

    Example: Winners in the competition were Bill, first place; Amy, second place; and Jeff, third place.

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    How to use the ellipsis ?

    The ellipsis (…), sometimes called the suspension or omission marks, has three uses:

    • to show that some material has been omitted from a direct quotation [One of Churchill’s most famous speeches declaimed: “We shall shall fight them on the beaches … We shall never surrender”.]
    • to indicate suspense [The winner is …]
    • to show that a sentence has been left unfinished because it has simply trailed off [Watch this space …]

    Note: Technically there should be three dots in an ellipsis, but I would accept two at the beginning of a piece and four at the end.

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    How to use the colon ?

    The colon has two uses:

  • To indicate that what follows it is an explanation or elaboration of what precedes it (the rule being that the more general statement is followed by a more specific one) [There is one challenge above all others: the alleviation of poverty.]
  • To introduce a list [There are four nations in the United Kindom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.]
  • Note: A colon is never preceded by a white space, but it is always followed by a white space, and it is never followed by a hyphen or a dash.

    Other uses of colon are:

    1. Use a colon to mean “note what follows.”

    Example: When you go to training, take these items: paper, pencil, and an alert mind.

    2. Use a colon before a long, formal statement or quotation.

    Example: We remember Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: Four score and seven years ago….

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    How to use the comma ?

    The comma is used very frequently but is also often used incorrectly.

    There are four distinct uses of the comma:

  • A listing comma is used as a kind of substitute for the word ‘and’ or sometimes for the word ‘or’ in a list when three or more words, phrases or even complete sentences are joined by the word ‘and’ or ‘or’.[The colours in the Union Jack flag are red, white and blue.]
  • A joining comma is only slightly different from a listing comma and is used to join two complete sentences into a single sentence, when it must be used by one of the connecting words ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘while’, ‘so’ and ‘yet’. [I could tell you the truth, but I will not.]
  • The gapping comma is used to show that one or more words have been left out when the missing words would simply repeat the words already used in the same sentence. [Some English writers use punctuation correctly; others, not.]
  • The bracketing comma always comes as a pair and is used to mark off a weak interruption of a sentence – that is, an interruption which does not disturb the smooth flow of the sentence and could be removed and still leave the sentence complete and making good sense. [This web site, I would suggest, contains much useful information and advice.]
  • Other uses of comma are:

  • Use commas to separate items in a series.
  • Example: Our itinerary included Rome, London, and Madrid.

  • Use a comma before and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet, when they join independent clauses (unless the clauses are short).
  • Example: The story gets off to a slow start, but it gets exciting toward the end.

  • Use commas to set off nonessential clauses and phrases.
  • Example: My father, who started this company, really knows his stuff.

  • Use a comma after introductory elements.
  • Examples: Well, how do you do? Before you leave, turn off the lights.

  • Use commas to set off an expression that interrupts a sentence.
  • Examples: The article in The Herald, our local paper, is about writing skills. Cabs in New York, I’m certain, obey the speed limit.

  • Use a comma in certain conventional situations (to separate items in dates and addresses, after the salutation and closing of a letter, and after a name followed by a title).
  • Examples: January 1, 1992 New York, NY Dear Shirley, Cordially, Albert Schweitzer, Ph.D.

    Note 1: One bracketing comma will suffice if the weak interruption comes at the beginning or the end of the sentence.

    [Although often wet, Britain has lots of sunshine. as opposed to Britain, although often wet, has lots of sunshine.]

    Note 2: The main purpose of punctuation is to aid understanding; a subsidiary purpose is to aid flow. Use joining commas and pairing commas where this aids understanding and/or flow. As a general rule, the longer the sentence or the more complex the sentence, the greater the need for commas.

    Note 3: When in doubt over where to use a comma, try reading the sentence out loud and, generally speaking, commas should be used where you pause for clarification or breath.

    Note 4: There is some controversy over use of something called the serial or Oxford comma which is the last comma in this example: The colours in the Union Jack flag are red, white, and blue. Generally the serial comma is not used in Britain where it is regarded as unnecessary, but it is commonly used in the United States where it is thought helpful. However, many authors prefer to use a listing comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’ only when it is necessary to make the meaning clear.

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    How to use the exclamation mark ?

    There is only one use of the exclamation mark:

  • After an exclamation of surprise, shock or dismay, which is generally a short sentence or phrase expressing very strong feeling (especially one beginning with ‘What’ or ‘How’) [What a wonderful surprise!]
  • Note: Exclamation marks should be used sparingly and usually not at all in formal writing.

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    How to use the question mark ?

    There are two uses of the question mark:

  • At the end of a direct question [Do you understand this rule?]
  • To show that something is uncertain (when it should be inside round brackets or parentheses) [He was born in 1886(?) and died in 1942.]
  • Note: A question mark should not be used at the end of an indirect question in which the speaker’s exact words are not repeated.

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    How to use the full stop ?

    There are two uses of the full stop:

  • To mark the end of a sentence expressing a statement (if you are unsure whether the words constitute a sentence, look for a verb which is an essential component of a sentence) [This is a sentence with the verb ‘is’.]
  • To signify an acronym – [N.A.T.O. for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (although increasingly it is acceptable and even preferable not to use full stops in such cases)]
  • Note: A common mistake is to use a comma where a full stop should be used, as in the linking of statements or sentences.

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