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Special Punctuation Marks


Use brackets to add an explanation or comment to a direct quote:

  • Berta wondered aloud, “Why did it [Joker] end that way?”
  • “This poem [“We Real Cool”] made Brooks famous,” explained Professor Choi.

Use brackets to enclose text that is already in parentheses:

  • According to this chart (Temperature Extremes [Fig. 4]), we've had a record-setting winter.

Put the Latin word “sic” in brackets to indicate that a mistake in a word or phrase appeared in the original source:

  • Their fundraising letter began, “Dear Fiends [sic].”


Use a colon to introduce ideas or a series of details that explain the preceding independent clause. A colon may call attention to an appositive, example, list, or a quotation:

  • Only one thing was important to her: the truth.
  • The reasons for divorce are many: money, infidelity, children, or boredom.
  • The sense of unity with nature is vividly shown in Zen Buddhist poetry: “An old pine tree preaches wisdom.”

Use a colon when required by convention:

  • Biblical references: Genesis 1:1
  • Business letter salutations: Dear Professor Devall:
  • Certain titles and subtitles: On Being Funny: Woody Allen & Co.
  • Periodical Volume and Number: Harper’s 203:16
  • Periodical Volume and Page Number: Harper’s 203:98–101
  • Time: 12:15 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.


Formed by two hyphens, dashes mark an abrupt break in a sentence. Less formal than either parentheses or commas, a dash—highlighting whatever is set apart—also creates a dramatic pause.

Use a dash (instead of parentheses) when a parenthetic expression is lengthy, contains commas, or deserves special emphasis:

  • My grandmother's house—the apartment in the city, not the clapboard cottage on the beach—has been sold.
  • Daynel told me—and don’t breathe a word of this to anyone—that he was fired Wednesday.

Use a dash to emphasize or to set off a single word, an appositive, or a summary:

  • There’s one way in which to succeed—hard work.
  • I cannot believe what she puts on her hamburger—sauerkraut.
  • They graduated, married, and divorced—all this change in just six months.

Use a dash to show an abrupt change in thought:

  • You are NOT dragging me to that movie—oh, what the heck, start the car.

Use a dash to mark an interruption or pause in dialogue:

  • “Would—would you mind terribly?”


Use three spaced periods (ellipsis) to indicate the omission of one or more words in a direct quote. Beginning a quotation with an ellipsis is unnecessary. End a quotation with an ellipsis only if words have been omitted from the end of the final quoted sentence:

  • “Now, as a nation . . . we were founded on the idea that everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed.”
  • “brilliant . . . an amazingly insightful film”

If the ellipsis represents the omission of a complete sentence or more, use four periods instead of three:

  • “Change will not come if we wait for some other person. . . . We are the change that we seek.”


Use an exclamation point after a command or other expression that expresses strong feeling or deserves special emphasis:

  • For the last time, stop distracting me!
  • Fire! Fire!

Use exclamation points sparingly. Overuse dilutes their impact.


Hyphenate multiple words acting as a single adjective before a noun:

  • state-of-the-art design
  • greenish-blue eyes

Hyphenate compound numbers:

  • twenty-eight
  • ninety-three

Hyphenate certain prefixes and suffixes:

  • all-school assembly
  • self-esteem
  • great-aunt
  • half-finished
  • president-elect

Hyphenate words to avoid ambiguity:

  • Since Sylvia auctioned all my records, I’ll have to re-collect them.

Hyphenate some compound words to avoid awkward double or triple letters:

  • anti-inflammatory
  • cross-stitch

Use a dictionary to check standard usage of hyphenated words, e.g., whistle blower, whistleblower, or whistle-blower.

Never use a hyphen between an adverb ending in “ly” and the adjective it modifies.


Use parentheses to enclose information that is helpful or informative but not essential:

  • When you get to that big farmhouse (three miles from I-270), turn left.
  • After Hongzia graduates from college (Mizzou), they plan to join the Peace Corps.

If parentheses enclose a question or exclamation, keep the question mark or exclamation point inside the parentheses:

  • Shema received Omar’s text (when did he get an iPhone 6s?) and replied yesterday.

However, capitalize or include periods only if the parenthetical sentence is not enclosed within another complete sentence:

  • I told my partner (we had been married only five days) that I missed her desperately.
  • I told my partner that I missed her desperately. (We had been married only five days.)


The slash indicates contrasting terms or paired items:

  • Durand took Advanced Astrophysics on a pass/fail basis.
  • Although the player/manager committed eight errors in three innings, he still wouldn't take himself out of the game.

When quoting a poem, use a slash to indicate the end of a line, adding a space before and after the slash:

  • “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
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