Punctuation matters: The sticky seven

Punctuation, it matters. Now that we’ve got our heads around full stops, question marks and exclamation marks let’s make a gradual move up the scale of difficulty. Asterisk This cute little symbol * (created by pressing SHIFT and the 8 on your keyboard) of Greek and Latin origin has an equally cute meaning, little star. Aw. This little star in punctuation is often used like a footnote to suggest further comment, clarification or by advertising people to indicate there is more information. If there is more than one, the asterisk breeds i.e., there is one asterisk for the first note*, two for the second**, three for the third***. Just like a footnote, you should find that the bottom of the page has asterisks that match those in the body of the text. For example:

  • In an earlier post about punctuation, I wrote about three easy punctuation marks: the full stop*, the question mark and the exclamation mark.**

*Full stops are also called ‘periods’. **These three punctuation marks are commonly referred to as ‘end marks’. Another example is in advertising material and I’m sure we’ve all seen it. Advertisers use it as a means of providing extra information and also as a sort of disclaimer, especially if the offer is too good to be true. For example:

  • Buy one pair of running shoes and receive a second part at half price*

*Second pair must be of equal or lesser value to first purchase. Offer only valid until May 31, 2015 or while stocks last. Sizes and colours may vary in-store. En and Em Dashes They might look similar, but en dashes and em dashes are different lengths and they each perform different functions. The smaller of the two, the en dash (–) is most often used to represent the words ‘through to’ when detailing a range of time e.g., 1981-1985. However, many guides will advise that if using the range with words such as from or between then the en dash should not be used. For example:

  • CORRECT: I represented as a touch football referee from 1999 to 2004.
  • INCORRECT: I represented as a touch football referee from 1999–2004.

The em dash (—) is a pretty versatile punctuation mark for it can take the place of commas, parentheses and even colons, but it’s best not to overuse it to ensure your writing retains its clarity. If using an em dash in place of a comma it will provide greater emphasis. It also provides greater emphasis, without the formality, on the conclusion of a sentence if used in place of a colon. For example:

  • Turquoise waters, soft white sand, the warm sun overhead — I love Western Australian beaches.

Further, the em dash can be used to replace omitted parts of a word:

  • She met with — — — every Thursday at the hotel — — —.
  • We found a note in the fireplace from the victim, but we could only make out: “I’m sorry — — — —  — — — — —. Good — — —.”

When it comes to en and em dashes, most editors use them without spaces on either side and this seems to be a common approach in many style guides. However, newspapers and magazines often use the en and em dash with a single space on either side, so there is some merit in checking the house style when writing or editing. Brackets and Parentheses Let’s start with parentheses as it is most likely people are familiar with them and their common use. Parentheses are the two rounded punctuation marks that identify words, clauses or sentences that are inserted into a passage independently of grammatical sequence. While a single mark is called a parenthesis, this punctuation mark is most commonly used as a pair. A critical point to remember is that the material inside of the parentheses is not integral to the surrounding sentence, and so the best way to determine if you are using the punctuation correctly is to read the sentence without the content contained within the parentheses. If the sentence makes sense, then the parentheses are acceptable, but if it doesn’t then it’s best to alter the sentence and/or the punctuation.

  • CORRECT: Tara Moss (and Berndt Selheim) travelled to the awards ceremony.
  • INCORRECT: Tara Moss (and Berndt Selheim) were presenting the awards to the best new talent in the Crime and Suspense, and Poetry genres.

When it comes to end marks and their placement in relation to parentheses the rule is pretty simple. If the sentence in parentheses can stand on its own, the end mark (full stop, question mark, exclamation mark) should be placed inside the closing parenthesis:

  • I have a fear of flying, so when I travelled overseas for the first time I was completely overwhelmed at how long I would have to be in a place. (I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to experience new things.)

On the other hand, if the content occurs in parentheses at the end of a larger sentence, the end mark would be placed outside the closing parenthesis:

  • After six months of negotiation an announcement about the managing editor’s position had still not been made (and the staff was becoming frustrated with the lack of direction).

Similarly, if the content occurs in the middle of a larger sentence the punctuation should be placed on the outside of the parentheses in the same way it would if the content in parentheses was not there in the first place. However, where that content forms a complete sentence in the middle of a larger sentence, the content within the parentheses should not be capitalised and nor should it end with a period, though a question mark or exclamation mark is acceptable:

  • Evelyn was told her services were no longer required (she had been with the company for less than a year), but she knew their secret and she wasn’t afraid to use that information to her advantage (was she being foolish?).

Parentheses can also be used in the following applications:

  • Abbreviations and acronyms e.g., The chief executive officer (CEO) of Microsoft.
  • For lists in text e.g., Place your votes in order of preference of the following: (1) Liberal Party, (2) Labor Party, (3) Greens, (4) Katter’s Australian Party, and (5) Palmer United Party.
  • The year of birth and/or death of a person o the first instance, in some documents, e.g., Pablo Picasso (October 1881–April 1973) was a Spanish painter, sculptor, playwright and poet who spent most of his adult life in France.

Though similar in appearance (try not to get too caught up in the round/square argument) brackets can often be misused. Put simply, brackets allow for editorial comments from someone other than the author and indicate asides or other information requiring parentheses for information already within parentheses. This could include clarifying information, changing to upper or lower case, indicating an error, and translations in quotations. An example of ‘clarifying’ use of brackets is:

  • Grasshoppers, shrimps, spiders and other creatures have all been named after the English broadcaster and naturalist [Sir David Attenborough] and now a whole genus of plants will bear his name.

It is initially unclear who ‘the English broadcaster and naturalist’ is, and the information in brackets is added to the material, not substituted for it. Editors can avoid using brackets entirely by reworking the copy, so the above could become:

  • In addition to grasshoppers, shrimps, spiders and other creatures, Sir David Attenborough now has a whole genus of plants that will bear his name.

Where quoted materials appear within the body of a larger piece of information it is common to change the first letter of the quoted material to upper or lower case, and the change is likely to be indicated by using brackets:

  • As outlined in the terms of your enterprise agreement “[s]ub-editors may be required to work public holidays to ensure print delivery deadlines are met.
  • “[T]ime off in lieu of that which is worked outside of regular business hours will apply.”

Perhaps a common misconception about editors is like of pointing out the mistakes of others. (A discussion about the role of editors and what you can expect when working with one has been written previously.) However, brackets appear around the word ‘sic’ (and no, that’s not a spelling mistake; it’s Latin for thus) when the person being quoted has made an error, such as a misstatement, and readers need an aid to avoid confusion. For example:

  • “Text messaging while driving and not using hand-free or Bluetooth technology is [sic] the most common causes of car accidents among the under 25 age group,” the police minister says.

Editors may choose to re-write the information to remove the error and ensure fluency for the reader:

  • The police minister says “text messaging while driving and not using hands-free or Bluetooth technology” are two of the most common causes of car accidents in those aged under 25.

Finally, brackets are often used in translations where the foreign word might not be understood by a broad readership. For example:

  • My grandmother never spoke English at home, but my Italian was never very good so when she would ask me a question I would often respond “Si, nonna [yes, grandma]” and hope for the best.

Semicolon The semicolon is what separates those parts of a sentence between which there is a more distinct break than would call for a comma, but which are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences. It is most commonly used between two independent clauses where the coordinating conjunction (i.e., and, but, for, or, nor, yet) is omitted. For example:

  • To err is human; to forgive is divine.

However, where the second clause expands on or explains the first it is best to use a colon. For example:

  • INCORRECT: He is my husband; his name is Paul.
  • CORRECT: He is my husband: his name is Paul.

Semicolons are also used where two independent clauses are linked by a transitional expression (i.e., for example, nevertheless, consequently, accordingly). For example:

  • The cyclone has been rated at Category 5; consequently all flights have been postponed.

The other place you can find semicolons being used is in lists where commas are in the list items. For example:

  • The Myer Centre is divided into several levels: men’s and women’s fashion; appliances, IT and electronics; books, music, stationery and travel items; and baby items and toys.

Ellipsis An ellipsis is a set of three full stops (…) used to indicate the omission of words from quoted material. It is also the punctuation mark most commonly used to indicate the trailing off of a thought or a hesitation (and where used as such is often referred to as a ‘mark of suspense’):

  • “There’s a very special torture about the death penalty and telling somebody for 10 years you’re going to shoot them, and then holding out real hope … not staging any executions for nine-and-a-half years … and then telling people that if you rehabilitate yourself you have a very real chance of clemency,” Matthew Sleeth told the ABC.*
  • If only you had …
  • I want to tell you … But … Oh, it doesn’t matter.

*This example is taken from a news item that appeared on the ABC News website (www.abc.net.au) titled ‘Bali Nine: Australia’s Attorneys-General make unprecedented appeal to Indonesia as clemency petition for duo garners 150,000 signatures’ dated February 15, 2015.

Where a paragraph or more of a quotation is omitted it is common for the ellipsis to appear on a line of its own. For example: An ellipsis is especially useful in quoted speech: If words are left off at the end of a sentence, indicate the words with an ellipsis If words are left off at the beginning of a sentence it is not necessary to use an ellipsis to indicate words have been left out.

One thing writers and editors should consider when using the ellipsis is the original meaning of the material being quoted. It is especially important that the meaning of the quoted information is not altered with the omission of words and the addition of an ellipsis. Another thing, when using an ellipsis be sure to insert a space both before and after it. No punctuation mark should be placed before the first part of the point and unless it’s the closing quotation mark, a question mark or an exclamation mark no punctuation mark should follow the last point.

Feel free to leave your comments below.

If you are looking for an editor who knows an asterisk isn’t a comic book character, and a few other things about punctuation, contact me at Pencil First Writing and Editing


  • Oxford Reference 1991, The Australian Writers’ and Editors’ Guide, ed. S Purchase, Oxford University Press, Melbourne
  • Commonwealth of Australia 2002, Style manual: For authors, editors and printers 6th edition, rev. Snooks & Co, John Wiley & Sons Australia

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