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Punctuation: Road markers to good writing

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow
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A retired English professor, Dolly Withrow is the author of four books, including “The Confident Writer,” a grammar-based college textbook. Contact Dolly at dollywith@gmail.com.

Here is a little something to make your pulse race: Hair Doctor’s. A sign in front of a beauty salon had those words, along with the pushy, misused apostrophe. According to Henry Hitchings, by the way, apostrophes “will either disappear or be reduced to little baubles of orthographic bling.”

He says the meaning’s not lost when the apostrophe is omitted and that its use is more “for the eye than the ear.” I agree, but there are still a diminishing number of writers who cherish the apostrophe and treat it with respect. If you care about writing skills, this column is for you. After all, when we speak, we don’t need punctuation. That’s why many journalists aspire to be in the electronic end of news distribution. Who can blame them?

When I sat in departmental meetings on the campus where I taught college English, I watched my colleagues circling mistakes in the student newspaper and in memos they had received from unsuspecting professors in other fields. Most English professors are sticklers for using punctuation marks correctly, and they’re aware each mark has a purpose. I’m sure you’re on fire to know, too.

  • The purpose of the colon is to tell you more goodies are coming your way, so read on to find information on the following: dashes, parentheses, hyphens, exclamation points, square brackets and ellipses. Note: I omitted the comma before the “and” in the preceding sentence since I’m pretending to be a journalist, and journalists omit the comma. If I were pretending to be a business writer, I would include the comma, and as an honest-to-goodness English major, I include the comma before the “and” in a series. I’ll not discuss the apostrophe since it’s going to fade into oblivion anyway, and besides we might all pass out before getting there. Bear with me.
  • Dashes are used to emphasize; parentheses are used to de-emphasize; and commas are neutral. Notice how the punctuation marks in these sentences change the emphasis. Dashes — twice as long as hyphens — are used to emphasize. Dashes (twice as long as hyphens) are used to emphasize. Dashes, twice as long as hyphens, are used to emphasize. Dashes are also used to set off a series within a sentence. Here’s an example: The letter — vague, redundant, and poorly organized — should be revised. Dashes can also be used to signal a contrast or shift in direction.
    She wanted to write — not teach. Here’s a final word about dashes: Use them sparingly or they lose their function. Since I’m still pretending to be a journalist, I left a space before and after each dash. English majors, business writers and book publishers close those gaps—like this.
  • Hyphens are used when descriptive words function as a single unit. I’m trying my best to avoid terms like adjectives and nouns. Examples will help. Barbara Walters, an 84-year-old journalist, is retiring. I must write a 20- to 30-page report. If you’ve read this far, you get a gold star, and if you’re wondering about the hyphen after 20, the word “page” is invisible, but it’s still there in meaning, so the hyphen is necessary. How’s that? Here’s another tip: When a compound modifier ends in –ly, do not use a hyphen. A clearly written book is a joy to read. A well-written report is still boring. See the difference? Here are more goodies: The prefixes self-, all- and ex- usually require hyphens regardless of the words to which they are attached: self-made woman, self-esteem, ex-employer, all-knowing smarty-pants (the last is a hyphenated noun). A hyphen is used if the word will cause confusion: recreation is different from re-creation and recover is different from re-cover. If you’re burning to know when to use “different from” and “different than,” send me a note at my new email address (see above). I get excited about these things.
  • Exclamation points should be used sparingly. One professor told her students they could use one in a lifetime. They probably believed her, but do use them only when you’re exclaiming, for they do not put spice in your prose. Your words carry that little load. Your hair is on fire! The man is shooting at us! I had fish for dinner. Who cares? You get the idea because you’re a member of the elite.
  • Square brackets [ ] are used to let readers know writers have injected their own words within quoted material. She said, “Grammar is my favorite subject, [I didn’t believe a word of it] and you’re my favorite teacher.” By the way, I’ve noticed all my square brackets have been changed to parentheses by various editors. I must check the “Associated Press Stylebook” since I’m the great pretender.
  • Speaking of which, journalists use those little dots (ellipses) all shoved together, elbow to elbow. English majors spread them out. Their purpose is to let readers know words have been omitted within quoted material. She said, “I love to conjugate verbs at parties . . . and during thunder storms.” Those are an English major’s dots. Here are a journalist’s dots. She said, “I love to talk about grammar at parties … and at midnight.” If you’ve made it this far, you are serious about being the best writer you can be, and you deserve a salary increase or at least a bonus.