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.

Lesser-known Punctuation Rules

By Ian Pisarcik, Legal Publications Attorney Editor

Let’s start the week off right with some lesser-known punctuation rules.

  1. Punctuation and closing quotation marks

    Most people agree that periods and commas precede closing quotation marks (let’s forget the loveably misguided British for a moment). However, confusion abounds when colons and semicolons enter the mix. To clear things up, colons and semicolons (along with question marks and exclamation points) follow closing quotation marks unless they appear in the original quoted matter. Moreover, all punctuation should appear outside quotation marks when distinguishing words to be typed. For example:

    President Barak Obama invited me to the presidential inauguration to recite the lyrics to my hit song “Peace in the World”; instead I lectured the nation on the rules of punctuation. I was able to record a video of the event before a large man with dark sunglasses grabbed me by the shoulder and asked me how I expected to make any friends. To view the video, go to my homepage, click on the search function, and type “Ian attends the inaugural address”.

  2. Using a comma before “such as” and “including”

    Many people automatically place a comma before “such as” and “including.” But a comma is only necessary when followed by a nonrestrictive, nonessential phrase or clause. For example:

    Songs such as “Hands on the Wheel” and “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” appear on Willie Nelson’s 1975 album.

    Some songs, such as “Hands on the Wheel” and “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” are commonly referred to as old-country or classic-country songs.

  3. Punctuating one-word questions

    When a question consists of a single word, the question mark can be omitted. For clarity, the word should be italicized. For example:

    Joe asked himself why.

  4. Hyphenating phrasal adjectives
    Phrasal adjectives are almost always hyphenated. As Bryan Garner put it, “[I]f two or more consecutive words make sense only when understood together as an adjective modifying a noun, those words should be hyphenated.” Thus, “high-school dropout” and “first-year graduate student” are proper. Naturally, there are exceptions, including when a phrase contains a proper noun (e.g., “the famous World War II battle”).
  5. The interrobang 

    To round off all this punctuation fun, I thought I’d introduce a lesser-known punctuation mark. Ladies and gentlemen: the interrobang The interrobang is an overlapping question mark and exclamation point. It was invented in 1962 and managed to make its way onto many typewriters and into several dictionaries. It even made its way into the default typefaces in the Apple and Microsoft operating systems. While its rise is admirable, I wouldn’t expect it to see it on BarBooks™ any time soon.