A hyphen is one-half the size of an en dash (--) and one-third the size of an em dash(---). Hyphens are used to provide clarity and have three main uses. 1.  Hyphens are used primarily to make compound words, especially phrasal adjectives preceding the nouns they modify---for example: Thou fair-haired angel of the evening ... [William Blake] Talking in a sing-song drone ... [Entertainment Weekly] ... a starch-filled potluck of goodness. [Two Vegan Boys] An adjective phrase beginning … [Read more...]

Exclamation point

In English, the exclamation point (or exclamation mark) has only a few uses. Most often, an exclamation point follows a sentence, phrase, or word to express surprise or provide emphasis---for example: Facebook Dislike Button Is a Fake---And I Dislike That! [PC World headline] The rapper-actor was cleared of all charges and declared, "That's what I'm talking about!" [Gothamist] If things aren't going the way you want, speak up! [] An exclamation point can be placed in square … [Read more...]

En dash (En rule)

An en dash or en rule (--) is wider than a hyphen (-) and narrower than an em dash (--).  The en dash is neglected by many writers except as a substitute for an em dash, and even then it is increasingly replaced with a hyphen to mark a pause or parenthesis, especially online and, less commonly, in print journalism. Among British and Australasian publishers, it is preferred to the em dash, although style guides differ. The en dash has several common uses. 1.  En dashes stand in for … [Read more...]

Em dash (Em rule)

An em dash (---) is longer than an en dash (--) and three times as long as a hyphen (-). Don't be afraid of it. It is useful and versatile, and too few writers make use of it. Uses of the em dash 1.  Em dashes set apart parenthetical phrases or clauses in a sentence. In this use, em dashes are similar to commas and parentheses, but there are subtle differences. For example, em dashes are used when a parenthetical remark contains an internal comma or would otherwise sound awkward if enclosed by … [Read more...]


An ellipsis (plural ellipses) has one conventional purpose: It signals that the writer has omitted something from a quotation. Traditionally, an ellipsis looks like this: [ ... ] There are spaces before and after the ellipsis, and there are spaces between the periods comprising the ellipsis. For example, we are omitting a portion of the following sentence: Obama baffles observers ... because he's an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. [NY Times] In some formats, particularly in web … [Read more...]


In modern English, the comma ( , ) has a few conventional uses. Uses of commas Listing Commas are used to separate items in a list. When there are only two items, there is no comma: Hilda was back in a few moments wearing a long gray squirrel coat and a broad fur hat. [Alexander's Bridge, Willa Cather] When there are more than two items, use commas between each item: ... two cotton handkerchiefs, some brass trinkets, and a little tobacco. [The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin] The … [Read more...]


A colon promises that something is about to be provided. As pictured above, it consists of one period-sized dot above another. It is different in both appearance and function from the semicolon ( ; ), which consists of a dot above a comma. Uses of colons Introducing a phrase or clause A colon may be used to introduce a phrase or clause that represents a step forward from what came before. The movement may be from a premise to a conclusion, from an introductory phrase to a main theme, from a … [Read more...]

Apostrophe Rules

The correct use of the apostrophe can be very confusing. Apostrophes are symbols or punctuation marks that are used in English grammar for three very specific reasons. The grammar and punctuation rules for using apostrophes are fairly straightforward. The three main uses for apostrophes are to form a possessive, to form a contraction and to form a plural. We will examine each of these areas of apostrophe usage, along with some examples. 1. Forming possessives Apostrophes create … [Read more...]

Beyond the pale

The idiom beyond the pale preserves an otherwise archaic sense of pale---namely, a region or district lying within an imposed boundary---so beyond the pale means outside the bounds. In modern use the idiom is usually metaphorical, meaning (1) beyond the bounds of civilized behavior, or (2) bizarre. Modern writers often use the phrase to mean abhorrent, but this is a little extreme. Beyond the pail is a common misspelling. Considered literally, something beyond the pail is past the … [Read more...]

Paean, paeon, peon

A paean (pronounced PEE-in, sometimes spelled pean) is a fervent expression of joy or praise, often in song. A paeon (pronounced PEE-in or PEE-on) is a four-syllable metrical foot in prosody. Anyone who doesn't analyze poetry will never have use for the word. A peon (pronounced PEE-on) is an unskilled laborer or menial worker. Today, use of the word is most common in Indian English, where it's used to describe any worker and presumably doesn't have negative connotations. In American and … [Read more...]

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