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Column: A Word, Please: 6 punctuation errors that can fly under the radar

Punctuation errors are often pretty glaring. A missing period at the end of a sentence, an extra period in the middle of a sentence or a comma placed outside of quotation marks leaps right out at editors and avid readers.

But other punctuation errors aren’t as easy to spot. Here are six that you may not be catching:

Hyphen instead of an em dash

A hyphen connects words, as in “good-looking,” while an em dash punctuates sentences — like this. An em dash is much longer than a hyphen. So when you use a hyphen to do an em dash’s job, it looks odd.


To make an em dash on a PC computer, hold down CTRL and Alt and hit the minus sign. Make sure it’s the minus sign on the number pad and not the hyphen key.

To make an em dash on a Mac computer, hold down Shift and Option then hit the hyphen key. As for whether you should put spaces around your dash — either method is correct.

Hyphen instead of an en dash

The en dash isn’t as popular as the hyphen or em dash. But it can help the aesthetics of your writing. Think of an en dash as a long hyphen. It’s used similarly, connecting words, numbers and prefixes, but because it’s a little longer, it works better in compounds like “pre–1950” and “post–Weimar Republic” and ranges, like “the May–December issues of the magazine.”


In that last example, a hyphen would create an error because it would suggest that you’re talking about one magazine covering the full span of May through December. An en dash between the months tells the reader you mean the May issue and the June issue and the July issue and so on.

To make an en dash on a PC, hold down the Ctrl key then hit the minus key. To make one on a Mac, hold down the Option key then hit the hyphen.

Parentheses instead of brackets inside a quotation

Sometimes when you’re quoting someone, you need to change his words slightly to help the reader. “The crossing guard told her to wait” can be a problem for the reader who doesn’t know who “her” refers to.

So sometimes it’s best to do something like this, “The crossing guard told [Kristen] to wait.” Brackets tell the reader exactly how you’ve altered the original speaker’s words. But too often, people use parentheses instead of brackets.

That can make it unclear whether the parenthetical insertion was the speaker’s or the writer’s: “Kristen waited a long time (approximately 10 minutes) to cross,” Bob said. Did Bob say “approximately 10 minutes”? Possibly. Those parentheses would be an acceptable way to indicate that he had. But the reader can’t be sure. So use brackets when inserting your own words and dashes for the speaker’s words.

Ellipses for effect inside a quotation

This problem is similar to parentheses inside a quotation: “Stanley met Julia and wow … it was fireworks,” Ellen recalled. An ellipsis, three dots in a row, has a special job inside quotation marks: It indicates something has been cut out, usually to spare the reader some unnecessary words. “Stanley met Julia and wow I just, I just couldn’t get over how much I was floored by this, it was fireworks.”


Ellipses are also sometimes used … for effect. They can create a dramatic pause or suggest a trailing off, like this … If you use an ellipsis for effect in a quotation, how is the reader to know which you intended?

A question mark with “Guess what”

Grammatically, “guess what” is a command, not a question.

No comma to set off a direct address

It’s “Hey, Joe.” It’s not “Hey Joe,” The idea is that you set off someone’s name or other moniker with commas to make it clear you mean “Let’s eat, Grandma” and not “Let’s eat Grandma.”

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at