The Hyphen

March 26, 2010


I apologize for not updating my blog as often lately. I’ll reveal the reason for the delay in my next blog so stay tuned!

At this time, let’s continue our discussion on the punctuation marks of the English language.   We discussed the dash several posts back.  This time we are going to look at the hyphen (-), which is often confused with the dash.   First, the dash is actually a bit longer than the hyphen.  Also, there is usually no space on either side of the hyphen (e.g. X-ray) unless it is part of a suspended compound:   

Ex. The full- and part-time employees went on strike. (Meaning: The full-time and part-time employees went on strike.)

There are four main uses of the hyphen:

1)      Writing numbers and fractions

He ate ninety-nine apples and got sick.

The athlete won the race by three-tenths of a second.

2)      Creating compounds

Some compounds always take on a hyphen.  The best way to remember these are to see them often and to memorize them.  When in doubt, check a dictionary!

Ex.       My sister-in-law came over to visit us.

Over-the-counter medicine tends to be more affordable than prescribed medicine.

Automobiles are not mass-produced inside a factory.

Sometimes, depending on the writer, a word could be hyphenated or not!    

Ex.       ice cream or ice-cream?

Use a hyphen to join two or more words acting as an adjective before a noun. Yet, when they follow the noun they modify, they are not hyphenated.

Ex.      The knife used to cut the cake is made of stainless steel.

             The stainless-steel knife was used to cut the cake.

The four-year-old child called the paramedics just in time to save his family.

The kid who saved his family was only four years old.

Never hyphenate compounds that are created with –ly adverbs even they come before nouns and act as an adjective.

Ex.       The beautifully designed house is owned by Oprah.

(NOT The beautifully-designed house is owned by Oprah.)

Oprah’s house is beautifully designed.

3)      Adding prefixes or suffixes.

There is no hard and fast rule about this as British English tend to hyphenate words that American English may not hyphenate.

            pre-school (British English)

            preschool (American English)

Yet, the prefixes ex-, self-, and all- almost always require a hyphen.

She still talks to her ex-husband.

She is acting tough to prove that she could also be self-sufficient and does not need to depend on a husband.

The suffix –elect is also always accompanied by a hyphen.

The president-elect angered many of his supporters when he was found to have accepted bribes.  

Hyphens are also used when separating out a prefix and a word with the first letter capitalized, with figures, or with letters.

The T-shirt has been popular ever since its invention sometime after the mid-1800s and became a piece of outer wear post-World War II.

4)      Avoiding confusion or “letter collision” but this is not absolute

shell-like (adj; having the shape of a seashell) vs. childlike (adj; like a child)

(Childlike does not create confusion.)

Sometimes the addition of a hyphen changes a word’s meaning.  Be careful about this!  Usually, one of these involves a prefix so its meaning may not be too difficult to guess.  Hear are some examples. 

re-mark (verb; to mark something again) vs. remark (noun; a comment)

re-formed (verb; to form again) vs. reformed (adj; changed or improved)

The placement of the hyphen in phrases with three or more words is a determinant of their meaning Can you guess the meaning of each of the following?  Try to guess before you look at the answers at the bottom of the page!

The forest has five-hundred-year-old trees.

The forest has five hundred-year-old trees.

The forest has five hundred year-old trees.

The forest has five-hundred-year-old trees. (Meaning: The forest contains trees that are 500 years old.)

The forest has five hundred-year-old trees. (Meaning: The forest contains five trees that are 100 years old.)

The forest has five hundred year-old trees. (Meaning: The forest contains five hundred trees that are 1 year old.)

Quotation marks (Part II)

October 26, 2009


Do you have the use of quotation marks down pat? 

Okay, as promised, we need to discuss the placement of quotation marks when other punctuation are present.  When commas or periods occur with quotation marks, English speakers in the United States will place the ending comma or period inside the quotes while in the United Kingdom or Canada, logic influences the placement of the comma or period.  Basically, if the punctuation relates to the quoted material, it goes inside. When it is part of the sentence, and not the quoted material, the period or comma goes outside.


Charles Dickens once said, “A loving heart is the truest wisdom.” (United States)

Charles Dickens once said, “A loving heart is the truest wisdom”. (United Kingdom and Canada)


Be careful!  This is only applicable for the comma and period, not for other ending punctuation like a question mark (?) or exclamation point (!), where the punctuation always go either before or after the quotation marks depending on whether punctuation is also part of the quoted material.


Did Charles Dickens once say, “A loving heart is the truest wisdom”?  (quoted material not part of question)

She asked, “Did you just say that the quote is from Charles Dickens?” (quoted material is part of question)


Now, a more complicated issue is what happens when quoted material is placed within quoted material, for example, when the writing is mentioning what someone is saying and that person is quoting someone else?

When this happens, the author would put double quotes around the speech that his informant said then single quote around what this person said that someone else said:


She said, “Charles Dickens once said, ‘A loving heart is the truest wisdom.’”


Last time, it was mentioned that writers may try to put others’ speech inside quotation marks to distance themselves from the speech or to suggest an alternative meaning to a certain word or phrase.  However, sometimes you may see that words or phrases are placed within quotation marks for emphasis. This should not be done as it would make readers wonder about the true meaning. Instead, one should underline or italicize the word.  On paper, underlining is probably going to be the chosen method while on the computer, italicizing is the better choice.


An advertisement at a retail store may read: “Low” prices  (This suggests that the prices might actually not be that low.)

Instead, underlining or italicizing should be used: Low prices OR Low prices


Last episode mentioned that titles of larger pieces of written work should be underlined or italicized. Here is a list of them:


Journals and magazines


Long musical pieces

Television and radio programs

Famous speeches


Lincoln’s famous speech The Gettysburg Address

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet


OK, that wraps up Part II on quotation marks!

Quotation marks (Part I)

October 4, 2009

quotation marks

Wow, it’s been awhile since I’ve last written about punctuation!  This time I want to talk about the use of quotation marks as they seem to be a rather unique punctuation marker in English as other languages use a different punctuation marker for the situations that one would use quotation marks in English. 

By the way, notice that it is quotation marks with an “s” as they occur in pairs (“ ”) or (‘ ’).  Even though the full name is quotations marks, sometimes people would just call them quotations or quotes for short.  Now, how would English speakers read a sentence with quotations, like the one below?

        Charles Dickens once said, “A loving heart is the truest wisdom.”

They would say “quote” when they reach the first quotation mark, read the quote, and then say “end quote” to give credit to the original author for the quoted material and to differentiate what he said from the rest of the sentence.

There are three main situations when quotation marks are used in writing:

1) The first involves quoting someone from written form or in verbal communication.  When the quote is a sentence or longer, remember to use a comma before starting the quote and capitalizing the first letter of the sentence.  If the quoted information is only a sentence fragment in paraphrased speech, no punctuation is required to separate the information from the rest of the sentence unless it is at the end of the sentence. 

        She said that the book is “interesting and deep.” 


2) The second usage of quotation marks is for notating the titles of the following list of short or minor works:

Short stories






Chapters in books

Articles in newspapers, magazines, or journals

Episodes of TV or radio series


        “Amazing Grace” is one of my favorite songs.

Longer works are underlined (Romeo and Juliet) or italicized (Romeo and Juliet). 


3) The third type of usage allows for single quotation marks.  Although double quotations could be used, sometimes writers prefer to use single quotation marks (‘ ’) to distance what someone said that is irony, slang, or a made-up word or phrase.  Usually, this is a few words or a short phrase. 


One of the headlines in The Los Angeles Times on October 2, 2009, was:

        Alleged Letterman extortionist said he needed to ‘make a large chunk of money’ 

Here the author is quoting and emphasizing what Letterman’s extortionist said.


A BBC headline on October 4, 2009, had:

        Iran ‘co-operation’ draws praise

Here the author is suggesting that maybe the cooperation is not really cooperation.  One would have to read the article to find out.


There are also issues with the mechanics of using quotation marks.  For example, what happens when quoted material is inside other quoted material?  Are there differences in the placement of quotation marks in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States? What does it mean to put something in quotations versus underlining it?  Quotation marks Part II to come!



David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The Los Angeles Times

The Dash

August 14, 2009



Back to talking about punctuation!  As mentioned in my latest post on punctuation, the dash is often confused and used incorrectly.  Or, sometimes, the dash is not used and a comma is used in its place.  Below are two examples which are wrong. 

An unnecessary dash where a comma could do the job:

“Barack broke through last night with voters who were watching — but we need to get the word out to the millions who didn’t tune in.” campaign manager David Plouffe, memo to Obama’s supporters during his run for office.

Comma used in place of the dash:

“Don’t worry about making it pretty, they will do that, just make sure the mathematics is right.” “Get Out Your Pencils,” Newsweek, 4 Apr. 1994.

Possible revision:

Don’t worry about making it pretty—they will do that—just make sure the mathematics is right.


Well, then, how should the dash be used?

First, there are actually two kinds of the dash, called the regular dash or em dash (—) and the en dash (–).


The em dash (—) acts like a “super comma” and used for:

1)      Separating an interjection or remark from the sentence with no space between the dash and the interjection 

The summer English camp program costs her whole paycheck—I can’t believe this!—but is well worth it because she will have a chance to interact with native speakers.

2)      Separating a list of items which contains internal punctuation

The three courses offered—conversation, grammar, and culture—are meant to improve the campers’ English skills.

In the above instances, sometimes people prefer to use the brackets (…) instead of the dash; however, some say the dash seems to be more welcoming than the brackets. 

3)      Indicating a break or the continuation of a sound in written dialogue

“Sean, why don’t you continue reading page—,” said Mrs. Smith.

“Page 31?” Sean interrupted.

“Yes, page 31,” replied Mrs. Smith in agreement. 

“Ah—!” screamed Ann.


There are never more than two em dashes in a sentence.  When an em dash is inserted, it must be finished off with another em dash or an ending punctuation like the period (.).


The en dash (–) is a bit wider than a hyphen (-) but functions differently:

1)      Indicating a range of time or date

The summer camp hours were from 8:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m.

2)      Joining compound adjectives when the two adjectives do not modify each other but modifies the same noun

The Fall–Winter camp session will be longer and more comprehensive than the summer one.

The SeattleLos Angeles flight to the summer camp took longer than expected.

The Colon

August 12, 2009



The colon is needed to complete an unfinished statement or thought.  The colon may be preceded by an independent clause (independent clause goes before the colon) and used in several situations.  Notice that in certain situations, what follows the colon begins with a capital letter.

1)      With a list of items

She checked her luggage again to make sure she had all the items she needed for the conference: two suits, two blouses, and two pairs of shoes. 

BUT, if what precedes the list of items cannot stand alone, meaning that it is not an independent clause, do not use a colon.

Her luggage included two suits, two blouses, and two pairs of shoes.


2)      Linkage of an independent clause with a independent, dependent clause, or phrase which may have one of several relationships: introduction to main idea, cause to effect, general statement to a specific example (only capitalize the first letter after the colon if what follows is a series of two or more sentences)

There is only one thing left for her to do: remembering where she placed the airplane ticket!

Before leaving her house, Sarah did not forget to do three things:  Check that the stove is turned off. Turn off all electronics. Close all windows. 


3)      To introduce a quote (notice the capitalization).

Not only is Shakespeare a famous playwright of romantic plays, he also coined a famous saying about love that is still popular today: “Love is blind.”



A colon may also be used in certain forms of writing.

1)      In an announcement (notice the capitalization)

Attention: Never leave your luggage unattended


2)      In a business letter

Dear Mr. Smith:


3)      In a play, skit, or court testimony

Ted: I have a phone conference with Mr. Cameron this afternoon.

Sarah: Oh, really?! I thought it was cancelled.

Ted: No, it will still take place. 


4)      In the title of a book or movie to set off the main title from the subtitle

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


5)      In time

9:30 pm or 21:30

The Apostrophe

August 10, 2009


A misconception about the apostrophe is that it is used only in contractions (e.g. cannot -> can’t).  Thus, many times, it is not used or used incorrectly in other situations.  Besides the comma (,) and period (.), the apostrophe is also a very important and commonly-used punctuation mark.  Therefore, we need to have a good grasp of it.  Here are some of its usages:

1)                  Contractions should not be used in formal academic writing as many teachers still frown upon them.  Instead, they should be reserved for speech and informal settings.  In fact, native speakers use contractions all the time in speech. 

I am = I’m

you are = you’re

let us = let’s

do not = don’t

it is = it’s

2)                  It is used in possessives.  With singular nouns, the apostrophe goes after the noun, followed by a “s”.  With plural nouns, the apostrophe goes after the “s”. 

The boy’s hats are in his room. (one boy)

The boys’ hats are in their rooms. (more than one boy)

What do we do with plural nouns which do not end with “s” but are irregular in spelling (e.g. children, women, men, teeth)?  Here, the apostrophe comes before the “s”. 

The children’s hats are in their rooms.  (more than one child)

The woman’s hats are in her closet. (one female)

The women’s hats are in their closets.  (more than one female)

There is an apostrophe in the contraction “it’s”, which stands for “it is” or “it has”, but it is not in the possessive form “its” (e.g. The dog lost its collar.) 

3)                  It is used to indicate the omission of figures in dates or letters in words. The omission of figures in dates is still quite commonly seen (e.g. 2009 -> ’09).  On the other hand, omission of letters in words is less prevalent now than in old English, such as Shakespearean English, but still seen in modern poems or to imitate non-standard English forms. 

The prologue of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet portrays old English and also contains examples of the apostrophes used in possessive forms:

    A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
    Whole misadventured piteous overthrows
    Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
    The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
    And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
    Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
    Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
    The which if you with patient ears attend,
    What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

4)                  It may be used to indicate the plurals of letters or words.  This is especially important to clearly differentiate the plural from, perhaps, another word (e.g. A’s versus As).  Nowadays, we do not add an apostrophe to make plural a year or an abbreviation, where there are no periods.  

I got all A’s on my report card.

What are the do’s and don’t’s in the American home?

BUT:    The Civil Rights Movement in the United States started in the 1950s.

            One of my colleagues has multiple PhDs. 

The Comma

August 9, 2009


When learning a language, people always think about learning the grammar, the pronunciation, and the vocabulary to improve their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.  In fact, this is what most language tests focus on.  With regards to improving one’s writing, punctuation is very important but often neglected. 

In the next several entries, let us take a look at some of the punctuation marks in the English language and their usage.  Believe it or not, punctuating properly could help you win more points on the next writing task!

Let’s start with the comma!  A comma marks a short pause in speech and is used for clarification purposes.    

1.                  Separate items in a series which has three or more items.  “She was commended for her hard work, dedication, and loyalty to the job.”  While some may argue that the last comma (the one after ‘dedication’) is not necessary, the presence of this serial comma or Oxford comma helps readability, especially when the items mentioned are complex or lengthy. My recommendation is to always include this comma as anything that helps your reader will mean a higher score for you!  (You may find that this comma is not present in newspaper articles.) 

2.                  Join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, so, yet, for, nor, or).  “She has been asked to translate for the company’s clients many times, but she was not receiving a bilingual bonus for it.” 

3.                 Before direct speech.

She said to her clients, “We greatly appreciate your business.”

4.                 In non-defining/non-restrictive relative clauses.

“The people, who had lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  (Meaning: Everyone in line had lined up since last night and was able to purchase the new video game.)  Notice that sometimes the ‘who’ may be missing. “The people, lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  Contrast this with: “The people who lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.” (Meaning: Only the people who had lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.)

5.                 To set off an introductory phrase or an interjection.

“Related to your job performance, we believe you deserve a promotion.”

“We believe, May, that your job performance should be commended.” 

This also goes for greetings, like in an email message:

Hi, May (although we often see “Hi May” instead, as people treat it like “Dear May”)

Thank you, May

Good morning, May

6.               To separate descriptive adjectives. (See my entry on Order of Adjectives.)

There are three instances when a comma is needed.  First, when adjectives are repeated for the purpose of intensification (‘big, big project’).  Second, when there are two adjectives in the same category which are similar in meaning and not incompatible with each so that if one is missing, the overall meaning is not lost (‘charming, attractive manager’).   Third, a comma is needed when there are three adjectives in sequence (‘expensive, French black suit’). 

7.                  To set off a contrasting phrase.

“It was her dedication, not her charm, which won her supervisor’s support.”

8.        For typographical reasons.

With dates – “She started working for the company on December 1, 2004.”  Without a date, the comma is not needed. “She started working for the company in December 2004.”

With place names – “The company is located in Santa Monica, California, a city near the coast.” 

With numbers – “The net worth of the company is $1,000,000.”

With name and suffix (although the comma may often be omitted) – “The president of the company is John Smith, Jr.”


There may be other instances where a comma is appropriate to avoid confusion.  However, do not overdo it either!