The Dash, Hyphen, Parentheses and Brackets Help
Use em dashes—one on each side of the interrupting thought—to emphasize an interruption within a sentence. Remember this one caution: Don't overuse them.
Here's an example:
- Call me if you're going to be late—even 15 minutes—or I will worry about you.
The preceding sentence shows an example of an em dash. As you saw, the em dash signaled an abrupt, emphatic break in the sentence. If your word processor lacks this character, just type two hyphens, with no space on either side.
The em dash can also be used to amplify a thought or indicate a sudden break:
- Her painting was reminiscent of the great painters—Monet, Manet, Bonnard—who preceded her.
- That car—that is, my first car—was my favorite.
- Will she—can she possibly—be here on time?
In addition, the em dash can be used with another form of punctuation, a question mark or exclamation point:
- Suddenly, my son—was he out of his mind?—yelled at the police officer.
The en dash is used chiefly to connect numbers and sometimes words.
- They lived in Italy from 1989–1993. (The en dash means to.)
- For tomorrow's class, read chapters 1–5.
- The Boston–New York train leaves at 9 A.M.
- The Boston Red Sox beat the NY Yankees 7–2.
When an en dash is used with the birth year, it means that the person is still alive.
- Professor Sandford Jamison (1978–) coauthored the book.
The professor was born in 1978 and is still living.
You may want to think of hyphens as spelling devices. Their most common use is to join compound words. Look at the following examples:
Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:
- able-bodied men and women
- one-way streets
- out-of-date equipment
- chocolate-covered cake
On the other hand, if the compound modifiers come after the noun, don't use a hyphen:
- The cake was chocolate covered.
- Use a hyphen with compound numbers:
Use a hyphen with the prefixes ex- (meaning "former"), all-, self-; between a prefix and a capitalized word; with the suffix -elect; and with figures or letters:
Use a hyphen to avoid confusion regarding meaning or to avoid an awkward combination of letters:
- re-sign your name (not resign [leave a job])
- semi-independent (vs. semicircular)
Use a hyphen when you need to break a word at the end of a line. Break between syllables:
Break between double consonants in words ending in -ing. Otherwise, hyphenate at the suffix:
At the end of a line, divide already-hyphenated words at the hyphen:
Parentheses and Brackets
Use parentheses for words not strictly necessary to the main thought of the sentence. The rule of thumb is this: When you read the sentence, you should be able to skip the words in parentheses and still have the sentence make sense. If it doesn't, the parentheses are used incorrectly.
- Use heavy-weight (bright white) printing paper
In this sentence, the meaning and intention are clear without the additional information in the parentheses.
Do not use a capital letter or final punctuation (except the question mark) within parentheses. For example:
- I left for Arizona on a Friday (or was it Saturday?) last year.
- I completed (somehow or other) five forms in 20 minutes.
- Use parentheses to enclose letters or numbers that mark items in a list:
- The chapters include (1) Birth to Six Months Old, (2) Six to 18 Months Old, (3) etc.
- Note that parentheses do not change the final punctuation in a sentence:
- The movie was written by Harvey Allen (1934–1998).
Of course, when the parentheses hold a complete sentence, the punctuation goes inside the parentheses:
- The movie was written by Harvey Allen. (He was born in 1934.)
- Use brackets within parentheses and within a quotation for clarity. For example:
- We traveled in Europe (Italy [Florence and Rome], Belgium, and England).
- Arben said, "We read famous short stories aloud [Poe and O. Henry] just for the fun of it."
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