Don’t be afraid.
When you write, you probably dive in and try your best with commas, apostrophes, and periods, all the while avoiding the less common punctuation marks out of fear. Reduce your uncertainty with this rundown of proper usage for unpopular punctuation marks.
With automatic hyphenation and justification built into word processing software, writers no longer need to know how to divide words at the ends of lines. Dictionaries and spell-checkers provide insight on words spelled with hyphens. However, hyphens are also used to join words that work together to describe a subject.
Some situations are clear examples of words working together as adjectives:
Our department runs like a well-oiled machine.
The 20-year-old dress code dictates that we wear matching uniforms.
My thin-skinned boss cringes every time the board president calls on him.
Grammar books say to use a hyphen in all cases where two words work together as adjectives. However, those stingy newspaper editors disagree, as is evident in the 2011 Associated Press Stylebook:
Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It is optional in most cases, a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. But the fewer hyphens the better; use them only when not using them causes confusion.
The York Times Manual of Style and Usage says the same thing.
Some harmony occurs, with journalism stylebooks and grammar books agreeing on these rules:
- Hyphenate combinations using the word well as in the first example above: well-oiled.
- Omit the hyphen when the adjective follows the noun: a machine that is well oiled.
- Omit a hyphen when the first word ends in ly: the poorly oiled machine.
Some people follow this guideline: if the words before the noun can function on their own as a noun that’s normally not hyphenated, omit the hyphen. For example, in the phrase high school students, high school can also be a noun, so it doesn’t need to be hyphenated.
So, then, is the United States having a health-care debate? Or a health care debate?
It depends. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says that the noun can be spelled health care or healthcare. If you use health care as the noun form, it specifies the hyphenated form as the adjective: health-care bill.
The Associated Press and New York Times specify that the expression is always two words as a noun and is not hyphenated as an adjective: health care bill.
Since hyphens are controversial, here’s the best plan of action when you encounter a hyphenation situation:
- Consult a dictionary to see if the word combination is already addressed.
- If not, consult a grammar handbook, the stylebook that is most appropriate for your field, or your company style manual.
Maybe you rarely use semicolons, which is fine because they are formal. But don’t avoid them out of uncertainty because the semicolon is one of the easiest forms of punctuation. There are only two places to use a semicolon. One is to make a complicated list clearer:
Serving on the new committee will be Ed Knight, chairman of Human Resources; Tamara Houston, assistant controller; and Norm McNair, Occupational Safety Committee chairperson.
The other place is between two complete sentences that are so closely linked that you don’t want a clear, definitive stop between them, the kind of stop a period creates. Instead, you want the reader to know that these ideas go together:
We must all work together to promote this new product; our future depends on it.
The colon is a social punctuation mark: its function is to introduce things.
And just like social customs, colon usage rules have gotten more casual over the years. It used to be that a colon was used only after a complete sentence.
Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are as follows:
But these days, writers who want to introduce a bulleted or numbered list or separate block of information can use this format:
Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are:
However, within a normal sentence, it’s still incorrect to use a colon after the verb to introduce a list that does not follow a complete sentence.
NOT: Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are: Person A, Person B, and Person C.
INSTEAD: Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are Person A, Person B, and Person C.
OR: Employees assigned to the Midwest Project are as follows: Person A, Person B, and Person C.
Colons can also be used to introduce examples as in the numerous sentences used to set up examples in this blog.
Colons have a few other technical uses, such as in ratios (a 2:1 return on investments) and time references (9:10 p.m.), but those common usages rarely cause problems.
Next time: Punctuation that’s too popular