Brackets and dashes


Otherwise referred to as ‘parentheses’, although this name is normally used for the standard bracket, thus (). There are four bracket shapes, and they are available on the standard keyboard.Pile of Brackets

In summary, they are applied as follows:

  • ( ) to clarify, not essential to meaning;
  • [ ] as a cross-reference; to correct, or explain a main point;
  • { } to expand on a set of choices;
  • < > to convey hidden thoughts.

( ) Round brackets, or ‘parentheses’ are mainly used to separate information that is not essential to the meaning of the rest of the sentence. Removing the information would not alter the meaning of the sentence. The parenthesis might contain, for example, explanatory text or supplementary information; and serves to clarify a main point.

[ ] Square brackets are normally used to denote inserted text by an editor or other third party, usually to clarify something; to insert explanatory material, mainly in a quotation; to indicate a word/phrase omitted; to explain an error that is printed as is [sic]; citations; to indicate the sentence was modified for clarity, as for example, when reporting on what someone said; to denote cross-reference, or information that needs verification; or to include material previously excluded by the original author.

{ } Curly brackets, or ‘braces’ are rarely used outside of high-brow physics or computer programming. In text, however, they would be expanding on a set of choices. For example, “You can have some ice-cream {chocolate, nutty, banana, strawberry} if you are good.” Also used mainly in poetry or music.

< > Angle brackets, or ‘chevrons’. Apart from being used in the same places as {}, they are used to embrace an email address, or to enclose highlighted material; to insert text in place of something otherwise unreadable or obliterated; to insert a URL (Universal Resource Locator), that is, a web address. Finally, they can be used to convey the hidden thoughts of a character, as opposed to those spoken out loud, when writing, say, a novel. Some authors use italics instead to convey thoughts coming to the character’s mind.

The possessive apostrophe

When using the apostrophe to show possession we refer to this as the possessive case. There are five rules with regard to the position of the apostrophe when using the Possessive Case:

  • a) When the owner (noun) is in the singular and does not end in an s add apostrophe s:
    • the bicycle of Peter becomes: Peter’s bicycle.
    • the book of Alice becomes: Alice’s book.
    • the cap of the workman becomes: the workman’s cap.
  • b) When the owner (noun) is in the plural and ends with an s add only an apostrophe:
    • the toys of the boys becomes: the boys’ toys.
    • the rudders of the ships becomes: the ships’ rudders.
    • the tails of the cats becomes: the cats’ tails.
  • c) When the owner (noun) is in the plural but does not end in an s add apostrophe s:
    • the cases of the children becomes: the children’s cases.
    • the wool of the sheep becomes: the sheep’s wool.
    • the yokes of the oxen becomes: the oxen’s yokes.
  • d) Joint ownership is shown by placing the apostrophe with the last word of the combination. Separate ownership is shown by placing the apostrophe with each member of the combination.
    • Mary and Joe’s car needs to be repaired. (both own one car).
    • Mary’s and Joe’s cars are very expensive. (each have separate cars).
    • Giles and Anderson’s Store (one shop).
  • e) When the word is a singular, but ends in s you can add an apostrophe s to create an extra syllable (unless it is long and awkward to pronounce):
    • the toys of James becomes: James’s toys (James’ toys is also acceptable).
    • the family of Mr Jones becomes: Mr Jones’s family (Mr Jones’ family is also acceptable). Then again, if saying the name would sound clumsy only add an apostrophe:
    • the car of Mr Humphreys will become: Mr Humpreys’ new car
      (as Mr Humphreys’s would sound too clumsy).

There are basically three forms of dashes used in punctuation: the hyphen, the en dash and the em dash. All three dashes can be created in Microsoft Word with keystrokes:

  • The alpha key hyphen for the common hyphen: –
  • ^Numeric keypad – (minus) combination for the en dash: –
  • Alt^Numeric keypad – (minus) combination for an em dash: —
  • There is also the ellipsis … Word shortcut key: ^Alt. (full stop), which is also discussed below.

Don’t mistake the em dash (—) for the slightly narrower en dash (–) or even the narrower hyphen (-). These marks serve different purposes as explained below.

According to various sources there are no spaces before or after any of these dashes. Thus:

‘That was our revered World Council Chairman on my back—yet again. Coldron’s been on my case since yesterday morning,’ Alpern told him. He shook his head wearily. ‘If I waste any more time answering questions, I won’t have any time to find the answers. Doesn’t he realise that?’ From Red Moon by Nigel Benetton

However, usage is up to you, I reckon. If you prefer to have spaces before and after the em dash then feel free. But do stick to the one style.


The hyphen is the shortest dash in our armoury. It is often used, for example, to combine two words. Thus: long-standing.

Hyphenation of compound words

The following should cover about 75% of such situations:


Verb, adjective or adverb: probably requires a hyphen, such as: chain-smoke, broken-down.

However, the adverb ‘very’ and adverbs ending ‘ly’ are not hyphenated: the very elegant watch; the finely tuned engine.


For nouns with two syllables use a hyphen if the second word has two letters: break-up, set-to.

For nouns with two syllables and the second word has more than two letters, the word is joined up: coastline, bedroom.

For nouns with three or more syllables they remain two separate words: washing machine, bathing suit.

Always hyphenate fractions: one-third.

Hyphenate prefixes when they come before proper nouns or proper adjective: trans-America, mid-July.

Compound adjectives

Generally hyphenate two or more adjectival words when they come before a noun they modify: off-campus apartment, state-of-the-art design.

Finally, use the hyphen as an option if it avoids confusion.

En dash

The en dash is half an em dash but is longer than the standard hyphen. The en dash is used for a span of numbers, scores, conflict, or a connection. Thus: 1990–1995 ; conservative–liberal ; east–west. It can be used to mean ‘through’ as, for example, a date, from July 9th through to August 19th: July 9–August 19; and, for page numbers: pp. 37–39.

To insert an en dash there is a keyboard trick in Microsoft Word, using the autoformat feature:

  1. First, type a word with a space after it.
  2. Type a single hyphen, with a space after it.
  3. Type another word, followed by another space.
  4. The hyphen toggles to an en dash.

Em dash

An em dash is the longest and can be used to indicate: a slight pause in the dialogue while the character considers what to say next; by way of parenthesis to insert a train of thought; a change of thought; or to add as an afterthought.

The long em dash can be is used to indicate a pause that is longer than a comma, but shorter than a full stop.

It can be used to emphasise a point, for example:

  • And when the car was finally delivered—nearly three months after it was ordered—she decided she no longer wanted it.

As an interjection, for example:

  • “Thanks to technology, we can have independence—relative independence—from the harsh qualities of the real world on a day-to-day basis.”

The Em dash, (singly or in pairs by way of parenthesis), can be used to break up a complex sentence.

  • “Thanks to technology, we can have independence—relative independence—from the harsh qualities of the real world on a day-to-day basis.”

Here are some more examples:

To indicate an interruption in the dialogue:

  • “She”—. He broke off as a jarring thump sounded from behind the door.

To show a pause or change in train of thought:

  • “She—well, if there was anything that was going to affect the family, any old scandal, she wanted me to know before—well, before I committed myself.”
  • ‘Didn’t you hear him say he was going to take steps—That might mean anything.’

Double em dash

The double em dash — — is used to indicate a missing portion of a word. Thus: mast——ke

Even three Em dashes may be used in place of several missing words or parts of a words.


The ellipsis … is used to indicate an omitted section in a quote, or in dialogue to indicate the trailing off of a sentence or thought. It can also be used in dialogue, like the em dash, to indicate a pause (for example, in hesitation). Indeed, there is some cross-over in usage between the ellipsis and the em dash, which can be left with the writer as a stylistic preference.

As a matter of fact, in dialogue a pause can be indicated by an ellipsis; semicolon or colon; or an em dash. Again, it is a question of stylistic preference.

My style

For what it is worth the following is my preferred style:

Use the long em hyphen — when a person is interrupted by someone else or something else (an external source).

Use the ellipsis … when the person interrupts himself as, for example: in hesitation; a pause in thought; a sudden moment of doubt;  or if he runs out of words. (ie an internal source). Also, prefer to use the ellipsis during a telephone conversation, indicating a pause while the other person on the other end of the line is talking. Thus:

  • Yes, all right, I will see Ellerton, give him the documents. But, as I say… yes, OK, right…OK, I’ll be seeing him today.’

A few more examples:

Use an ellipsis when a character is searching for the right word (again, interrupting himself). Thus:

Alpern’s brows knitted in enquiry. ‘You mean…?’

‘Precisely. These images are from the Reap station. But they came from an Alboran source.’

Use an ellipsis to skip irrelevancies and report only the key points. Thus: The viral disease progressed: breakdown of haemoglobin…clumping together…coagulation… general ruptures… purple contusions… severe muscle spasm…paroxysm.

Finally, I just mention that I prefer to use both the ellipsis and em dash without spaces either side.

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon and The Sands of Rotar.

Last updated: Monday, 13th January 2020