Punctuation Pet Peeves

Some people are bothered by the over use of the exclamation point. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” He may be right, but a properly placed exclamation point has never peeved me.

Other people are bothered by the use of the Oxford comma and still others by leaving it out. But that’s an argument (and a post) for another day.

My biggest punctuation pet peeve is the misuse of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. Writers frequently use these three distinct forms of punctuation interchangeably. Just because they are all little lines doesn’t mean they are the same. They are different lengths for a reason and they have different purposes in the composition of a sentence.

The Internet makes this particularly troublesome because often html editors don’t provide options for the em dash. Yet I think the problem stems from many people simply not understanding what these three punctuation marks do.

The Hyphen (-)

The hypen is a tiny little line that is used to connect two or more words as in a multi-word adjective or compound phrase. For example, “multi-word” in the previous sentence uses a hyphen. Other examples are: a three-day notice; long-term care options; open-ended contingency; or he was down-and-out.

Hyphens are also used to separate the syllables of a single word at the end of a typed line.

Finally, hyphens are sometimes part of a section, paragraph, or page number in a book. For example, an OSB legal publication might include the section number “§3.4-3” appearing on page “3-27.”

A hyphen is created using the hyphen key next to the 0 key on your computer keyboard.

The en dash (–)

The en dash, so called because it is roughly the width of the letter n, is used to indicate a range of numbers. For example, in a case citation where the pinpoint cite is a range of pages, the range would be “235–37.” If you were citing to an OSB legal publication, the passage you cite to might be on “3-27–3-32.” This last example illustrates the importance of using hyphens and en dashes correctly.

An en dash is created either by using the “Insert Symbol” menu on in your word processing program or by using the combination of “Ctrl+the minus key.”

The em dash (—)

The em dash, so called because it is roughly the width of the letter m, is sort of a comma or parenthesis on steroids. If you have a phrase in the middle of a sentence—it’s important though not essential to the complete sentence but you want it to really stand out—set it off with em dashes. You could have just put commas or parentheses where the em dashes are in that last sentence; it all depends on how much you want that phrase to be emphasized. But if you use em dashes you do not put spaces before or after them.

An em dash is created either by using the “Insert Symbol” menu on in your word processing program or by using the combination of “Ctrl+Alt+the minus key.”

So the next time you start to think that size isn’t important, remember the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. They are all important punctuation marks, but they each serve a different purpose depending on their size.

0 thoughts on “Punctuation Pet Peeves

  • John Zanetti says:

    Hi Linda,

    Thank you for your post. I am also bothered by the common misuse of hyphens and dashes, particularly when someone puts multiple hyphens in place of an en or em dash. Hopefully more writers heed your advice.

    Not that it is important but I do not believe the en dash and em dash are so named because of their reference to the letters. Rather, I was under the impression the names derived from old units of measurement. Just to make sure I was not making things up, I went back and found the reference in a book by Matthew Butterick. He also mentions it in his website:


    • lindakruschke says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and the addition of the link to Matthew Butterick’s book. I didn’t mean to suggest that the em dash and en dash were given there names because of reference to the letters, but only that one could tell which was which by using the size of the letters as a reference. Thank you for clarifying for me. Linda Kruschke

    • lindakruschke says:

      Trisha, Thankfully we don’t encounter that problem with our authors, who are primarily professional attorneys. If we did, I supposed we’d be inclined to find new authors.

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