Ellipsis points should consistently be three full points and no more. Preceded by a single space, this marking is used to indicate incompleteness, indecision, ‘trailing off’ or omitted text. Where required, place a question mark, exclamation mark or quotation mark after the three full stops.

Parentheses (the round brackets used here) are used to enclose definitions, comments, clarifications, additional information or asides. Use square brackets within quoted material to insert a clarification, correction or further inofrmaiton [sic].

The en-dash (–) is longer than the hyphen (-) used in word punctuation. The rules for using en-dashes are very particular but also very useful. Use an en-dash to show spans of figures, time and distance or an association between words that retain their separate identities: ‘While on the Melbourne–Sydney train, I read pages 31–5 in a book about parent–child relationships.’

You should also use an en-dash where a prefix is attached to more than one word (non–English speaking countries) or where you use a compound adjective that consists of more than one word (a hepatitis C–positive person).

The em-dash (—) is about the width of a capital M. The em rule’s main function—as shown here!—is to separate. It is the best marking to signal an abrupt change, introduce an amplification or explanation or to set apart parenthetic elements (often as an emphatic alternative to brackets).

Unless you have programmed a keyboard short-cut, in order to insert an em-dash in Microsoft Word you first open the ‘Insert’ menu, then select ‘Symbol’ and then find the em-dash in the font you are using. The en-dash and em-dash sit together in the symbols table. I am yet to find a pre-programmed em-dash on any keyboard, which is most likely why em-dashes are only used by those trained in editing. On most keyboards, you can ­also insert an en-dash by holding down the ‘Ctrl’ key and hitting the dash key in your number pad.


The Australian Government’s Style Manual recommends adopting single quotation marks to indicate speech, quoted material and coined phrases. For a quotation within a quotation, use double quotation marks inside single ones. If a punctuation mark (such as a full stop) is part of a quotation, keep it as part of the quotation; if not, place it outside the final speech mark. Quotation marks are also used in referencing (we’ll get to that another time) and for ironic emphasis.

Exclamation marks and question marks (used instead of a full stop) are generally self-explanatory. It is a grammatical sin to use more than one of these marks at once. If you are trying to outdo yourself by using surplus punctuation to show how emotional or emphatic a statement is, I recommend rethinking how the statement is phrased or switching to italics to add emphasis. Bear in mind that most readers will consider repetitive punctuation an irritating device which, if overused, will deaden the reader’s sensitivity.

There is an interesting convention with question marks and rhetorical musings. For example, ‘I wonder whether I could have expressed that sentence better?’ Although this is not a grammatically correct question, some writers use a question mark here to engage and intrigue the reader. The question mark seems to hang there, inviting you to supply an answer, whereas using a full stop in its place flattens the sentence into a mere statement. The choice is yours.


Example (sentence punctuation):

‘At two o’clock I realised how much I had to do: clean the bathroom (what a mess!); wash the car; weed the garden, which it starting to look more like a jungle; and cook dinner. There wasn’t much time left; I had to make a start. Then, to top it all off, my mother rang.

“Hello, love! How are you?”

“Actually I’m —”

“Just wait until you hear the story I have to tell you …”’


All publishers have a copy of the Style Manual but whether all editorial staff are familiar with and apply its contents is another matter. I completed an internship with one publisher where the editorial staff appeared to be indifferent to the difference between em and en dashes, while the Style Manual dedicates a section to the distinction and provides a very useful guide.

The fact that each publisher has its own house style guide proves that preferred spellings, the choice between double and single quotation marks and whether to bother with em dashes at all is largely a matter of choice. The point is consistency, which is why the best editing is editing that goes unnoticed. Anything that will stick out to the reader must be deliberate or else it is a distraction.


The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant: Sentence Punctuation (Part Two)’ in The Australian Writer issue 373 (September–November 2011).

Image source: Darin McClure, ‘Punctuation saves lives!’ (Flickr)

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