Category Archives: Punctuation

Ever-so-helpful hyphens

by Haley Morton

A curious thing has happened in the recent weeks. It has come to my knowledge that as a spring semester senior, I have a serious grammatical problem. Punctuation problem, really. Hyphens. They’ll be the death of my capstone.

The good news is that the History Department allows its ever-so-diligent capstone students to turn in two drafts before the final. Thank heavens for drafts because this is where learning happens. For me, this “learning” meant acknowledging my inappropriate lack of hyphens throughout my 92-page capstone.

By doing a little research, I learned that the rules behind hyphens are rather straightforward. There are two rules you should note.

  1. Hyphens are used to mark compound adjectives. Compound adjectives are two are more adjectives that are all used to modify the same noun. If the adjectives come after the noun, a hyphen is unnecessary. For example:
  • Necessary hyphen: He had a bullet-proof vest.
  • Unnecessary hyphen: The vest was bullet proof.
  • Necessary: …ever-so-diligent capstone students…
  • Unnecessary: Capstone students are ever so diligent in their drafts.
  1. The use of hyphens can also change meaning. In other words, without hyphens in the needed place, your reader can confuse how you intend to modify the noun. For example:
  • “Small-state senator” is not the same as “small state senator.”

It’s entirely possible that you never find the need to use hyphens. Or, if you’re anything like me, maybe your lack of hyphens is an indicator of a serious punctuation problem only to be manifested in one’s capstone.

Happy editing, and make sure you use those fool-proof hyphens!


Haley is a senior at Principia College and a political science and history double major. She has spent the last four years writing, studying, and running cross country and track. She is almost finished working on her capstone about Title IX and women in athletics.

Comma drama

by Carlie Sanderude

I’m sure I’m not the only one to know how easy it is to get tripped up over commas when writing. Sometimes I get “comma happy” and throw in commas after nearly every word. Other times I get “comma lazy” and don’t include enough commas at all. Commas really are not as complicated as we make them out to be if we follow a few simple guidelines. With a little help from my brother (who used to be a writing tutor before he graduated), let me offer the top five most common situations where you would need to use a comma in a sentence:

  1. Between items in a series. Note: the final comma is the somewhat famous Oxford comma that may be considered optional. Use it for clarity in most writing; do not use it in news writing and other mass communication courses.

Ex: Will you please give me a book, a pen, and a piece of paper?

  1. Between coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are those that could be connected with “and,” but instead you choose to use a comma.

Ex: The loud, angry man went storming out of the store.

  1. Before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses. The coordinating conjunctions spell FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Ex: I guess I didn’t need to buy the shoes, but I wanted to anyway.

  1. After an introductory phrase or clause. An introductory phrase or clause is a group of words that sets up a sentence, but is not the main subject of a sentence. It just provides added information.

Ex: When I went to France, I ate bread and cheese everyday.

  1. After introducing a quote. Place a comma after words such as “said” or “stated.” The quote must be a direct quote. If you use the word “that,” then the quote just becomes part of the sentence structure and no comma is needed.

Ex: Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”

Follow these rules when using commas, and life will become so much easier. If you want to know more situations where commas should be used, visit the tutors in the writing café in the library and ask for a comma handout! Commas can be daunting, but once you get the hang of it, they’re not difficult at all. But remember: just because you make a pause in a sentence doesn’t mean that you need to add a comma! That’s the big myth in this comma drama.

Carlie Sanderude is a senior at Principia College studying business administration and philosophy. She plays on the college’s soccer and tennis teams and has been a writing tutor for two years.

The persnickety apostrophe

by Laura Tibbetts

Apostrophes can sometimes be persnickety! If you feel that way, I hope you enjoy the following guide about when to use this lovely form of punctuation (hint: there are two main times).

THE TWO MAIN TIMES (I told you this was coming):

1. Contractionscombining two words and/or taking out letters

examples: until— ’til; you are—you’re; it is—it’s

Note: The only time there is an apostrophe in it’s is when the word is meant to be a contraction of “it is.” The possessive of the word has no apostrophe, as in this: The mouse ate its cheese.

2. Possessiveswhen something belongs to something else

  • For possessive singular nouns and proper nouns, add an apostrophe before the s

example: the cat’s hat

  • For possessive plural words ending in s, add an apostrophe after the s

example: the cats’ hats (multiple cats)

Note: For plurals like women and children, which do not end in s, add the apostrophe before the s, as in this: the children’s books

Some people get confused about what to do with words that already end in s, like Jesus or Socrates. Mostly for the sake of pronunciation, many writers will simply add an apostrophe (not another s) at the end—Jesus’ parables or Socrates’ long robe—when indicating possession.

In case you were curious, here are some examples of times not to use apostrophes:

1. With plurals (unless of course they are possessive)—for example, the plural of Monday is Mondays, not  Monday’s
2. With the pronouns his, hers, yours, or ours (and don’t forget its)
3. With who, when it is meant to be possessive—the word who’s means who is. And if you’re trying to ask who a book belongs to you would say, “Whose book is this?”

For more information, check out Purdue OWL:

or Writer’s Help: (search “apostrophes,” learn about apostrophes, and complete the two exercises).

Laura Tibbetts is a French and art major, and her favorite college academic experience so far has been studying abroad in France.

Dash it all!

by Genevieve Bergeson

In my punctuation pocket, I found three things.

–    This
–   That
The other thing

Are they the same? Did something break when I sat down?


So what have we got here? Two notoriously neglected/abused kinds of punctuation: the hyphen and the dash. But which is which? How do they differ? Let’s get these straight.

Here’s the line-up:

The Hyphen ( – ), alias “Shorty”

1. Makes compound words. They also attach single letters to words to make other words.

Ex. Merry-go-round, mind-boggling, T-shirt, twenty-one

2. Connects words that are split across two lines.

Ex. See, it makes con-


3. Attaches prefixes and suffixes.

Ex. Pre-fall, post-war, cat-like, length-wise.  (In some cases, the dash is starting to fall out of style; for instance, either “length-wise” or “lengthwise” is acceptable.)

Usually, hyphens do not affect meaning, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. Observe:

  • Kim’s T shirt was all the rage at the preschool staff meeting. (The teachers agreed it would be fun for her to wear when she taught the kids the alphabet.)
  • Kim’s T-shirt was all the rage at the pre-school staff meeting.  (It reminded the teachers of their fantastic summer breaks—soon to be missed once fall term began.)


The Dash ( –, )

Although two hyphens (–) may represent a dash, hyphens and dashes have very different functions.

Em dashes (—) always mark a big pause. They emphasize information by distinctly setting it off. They can also separate appositives—phrases that rename the noun(s) they immediately follow, such as this definition—with internal punctuation. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens without spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to —.

En dashes (–) express ranges in times or dates (and are interchangeable with “to”), e.g., 1775–1787. No drama involved. Formatting tip: Type two hyphens with spaces on both sides. They should automatically convert to –.

Hopefully today’s dash of punctuation demonstrates that details do make a difference.

Genevieve Bergeson, in her second year as a Principia post-graduate teaching intern in writing, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at and has several other stories in the works.