Brackets, Dashes, Ellipses, Hyphens

This page discusses many of the less often discussed types of punctuation. It differentiates, for example, between dashes and the two different types of hyphen. It also discusses brackets (but not parentheses) and ellipses…nothing else though.

Brackets  |  Dash |  Ellipses | Hyphen
Notes |  Bibliography

Brackets [ ]

Brackets are used to interject or set aside other text, and as a general rule the font face should match the surrounding text “rather than the material they enclose” (Chicago 241). That said, I sometimes adjust that, particularly if the fonts fit awkwardly together or I directly address the reader (see below).

Note: Parentheses are sometimes called round, oval, or curved brackets. There is a separate page for them.

1. Use brackets to add editorial content. When, for example, no date is given for a website or other publication, bibliographic citations explain that with [n.d.] for ‘no date’. [Does this make sense to you? -bd]

2. Use brackets to add material to quoted text.

Full quote: “Use four points to indicate any omission between two sentences; the first point indicates the period at the end of the first sentence quoted and the three spaced ellipses points follow.”

Shortened quote: “Use four points to indicate any omission between two sentences … [T]he first point indicates the period at the end of the first sentence quoted ….”

Use ellipsis and a bracketed capital (e.g., “[T]he fox in the hen house.”) to indicate that the text has been changed by the quoting author from one sentence to two.

Note: The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) suggests the use of an ellipsis for any omitted word, phrase, line, or paragraph from within but not at the end of a quoted passage. They would leave off the ellipses after the word quoted above.

3. In translation, use square brackets to add a word or phrase to ensure clarity (i.e., avoid ambiguity).

Green check mark  The French are well informed [au fait] on the use of truffles in seasonal dishes. [Remember to italicize foreign words. -bd]

Green check mark “They [the senior class] planted the trees around the mall,” the principal explained.

4. Angle brackets < > are sometimes used to set off URLs and e-mail addresses. This should be avoided unless your discipline’s style sheet expressly mandates it. MLA has not used angle brackets (or web addresses) in Works Cited entries since 2009. Instead, if the material is to be mounted online, make a live link. Otherwise, if the item is correctly cited, the reader can easily google it.

5. Curly brackets { } are most often used in math, computer programming, and physics. In general, omit them in other writing. Curly brackets indicate a series of equal choices. Example: My cats prefer their catnip in small stuffed toys {bunny, carrot, mouse, guitar} and lick them to extract the ‘nip.

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Notes | Bibliography

Dashes: – (n-dash) — (m-dash)

Important: Do not confuse hyphens with dashes. This can get confusing. The Chicago Manual of Style Online explains it this way: “there are three lengths of what are all more or less dashes: hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—)….[T]he work they do is roughly related to their length.”

Hyphens (-) connect two or more words or numbers into a single concept, especially for building adjectives.
Note: A dash is twice as long as a hyphen, so two dashes are frequently used to substitute for a hyphen.

Dashes (—) in general, 1) indicate an interruption, 2) substitute for parenthesis, or 3) stand in (like colons) for that is, they are, or similar expressions.

More on hyphens later. First, the dashes.

Why the names?  The letter ‘m’ is roughly twice the width of the ‘n’. There are two kinds of dashes, the m-dash and the n-dash. They are called that because each is normed by the width of the letter designating it. While these were clear and easy to manage for typesetters, digitally they can be a bit tricky. How can they be achieved? At least in 2014, it works this way:

  1. Microsoft Word requires that the writer go from the Insert pulldown menu to Symbol, and then Special Characters, where the m-dash and n-dash are clearly labled.
  2. In html, the m- and n-dashes are coded as &mdash; and &ndash; respectively.  Simply type them in that way when writing code. The better coding software makes it easy to insert special characters, using a system very similar to Microsoft Word’s. Dreamweaver, for example, requires that the author use the Insert pulldown, choose ‘html’,  and then select ‘Special Characters’.

When should each be used?

1. The n-dash (–) denotes 1) anything related by distance, and 2) to bridge open compounds. [Note that I use hyphens in n-dash and m-dash. -bd.]

The n-dash is most often used to connect numbers, and in that context means ‘up to and including’ or ‘through’ (e.g., one through three = 1–3).

Green check mark  Date span. The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) suggests that the n-dash never be used if preceded by the words from or between. Examples: Sarah says that her time at Millersville, 1996-2000, were the best years of her life. But: She was at Millersville between (or from) 1996 and 2000.

Use the n-dash with nothing following if the span continues.

Examples: 1) Professor Spedunk’s Postmodern English Literature (1980–) is taught only in the spring. 2) Barak Obama (1961–) is the 44th President of the United States.

Green check mark  Month span. It’s the “May–September issue of the magazine.

The CMS explains this example by suggesting that it’s “not a May-September (hyphen) issue, because June, July, and August are also ostensibly included in this range.” For my taste, that’s pushing it. Do note the difference in width between the hyphen and the n-dash -bd.

Green check mark Page span. See pages 41–42 in Bessinger.

The n-dash can be used to indicate any span of pages, so they’re useful in indexes and such.

Green check mark  In place of a hyphen with open compounds. She excelled as an athlete during the the pre–tennis shoe years. (The term tennis shoe is an open compound.)

2. The m-dash (—) has several uses.

Green check mark  It can be used like ellipses or parenthesis to include an additional thought to a sentence—like this. The CMSO notes that, “Its use or misuse for this purpose is a matter of taste, and subject to the effect on the writer’s or reader’s ‘ear.’” [Personally, I tend to use ellipses (…) simply because they’re quicker to set up, but the m-dash does look more elegant. -bd]

Green check mark  The m-dash can be used to substitute for something which is missing (e.g., “He used the f—word.”)

Green check mark Three m-dashes can be used in a bibliographic list, rather than repeating the same author over and over again. In the publishing world, this is actually known as a ‘3-em dash’.1

Green check mark  Use two m-dashes to indicate that someone has been interrupted: 1) “I would never——.” 2) “That’s a load of c——” “Please don’t say that on television, ma’am!”


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Notes | Bibliography

Ellipsis (plural ellipses)

An ellipsis—the omission of any text, however long or short—is indicated by ellipsis points, which are just dots. An ellipsis is most usually indicated by three dots, sometimes preceded or followed by other punctuation.2 Use ellipses when words are omitted or there is a pause in the flow of time. (Pet owner when training dog not to snap at food: wait for it…wait for it….) Elipses are used to indicate the omission of quoted material. (The addition of material to quoted text is shown with brackets.) Style books vary widely in the ways elipses are used and how they are styled, so review the newest version of your preferred style book.

Green check mark  Use no more than three dots when the omission occurs in the middle of a sentence. Use four dots to indicate that the you are omitting crosses the sentence boundary.

Other punctuation may precede or follow ellipses for ease of reading:

  • “John loves apples, oranges, … and cherries.”
  • “To be or not to be. That is the question.”
  • “To be or not …. is the question.”

Green check mark Primarily used in dialogue, the dots at the end of a sentence are often called suspension points rather than ellipses. There is no space before the group of dots, though there is space afterward to indicate the sentence break.

Green check mark  Brackets are sometimes used to indicate the addition or alteration of material.  The MLA Handbook suggests that bracketed ellipses be used to show that the elipsis itself is are not part of the quoted material, but rather is an authorial or editorial addition (e.g. “text […] text”) (3.7.5).

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Notes | Bibliography

Five Hyphen Rules

Authorities probably disagree on hyphenation more than on any other punctuation mark. And indeed, there are too many rules for this site to list. (The index entries for hyphen and hyphenation in the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is an entire column long and spans several categories.)  Therefore, the following rules should be considered as broad guidelines only. For particular usage questions, check with the appropriate style book.

1. Hyphens Between Words

Green check mark To check if a compound noun is two words, one word, or hyphenated, you need to
look it up in the dictionary. If you can’t find the single word or hyphenated word in the dictionary, treat the noun as separate words. Examples: eyewitness, eye shadow, eye-opener

NOTE: All these words had to be looked up in a dictionary to know what to do with them, and dictionaries differ in the decisions they make. A publication or organization should probably make one decision about what dictionary is to be officially used and stick with it (at least so long as the logic for the choice remains valid).  Why just one? Because otherwise stylistic variances will creep into the body of writing. This is particularly important if the writing is for a particular publication, agency, or firm. For example, Purdue OWL indicates that one dictionary it checked “listed hairstylist while another used hair stylist.” A quick check indicated that showed both usages with the two word version as first usage, while Merriam-Webster had two entries, though each showed the same meaning. The Brits at Cambridge Dictionary Online showed only the single word without a hyphen, and not the hyphenated or two word version.

Green check mark Phrases that have verb and noun forms should appear as separate words when
used as verbs and as one word when used as nouns. Examples

  • The engine will eventually break down. (verb)
  • We suffered a breakdown in communications. (noun)

Green check mark Compound verbs are usually hyphenated or appear as one word. If you do not find the verb in the dictionary, hyphenate it. Examples:

  • To air-condition the doghouse will be ridiculously expensive
  • We were notified that management will downsize the organization next year.

Green check mark Generally, hyphenate between two or more adjectives when they come before a noun and act as a single idea. Examples:

  • well-known actress BUT The actress is well known.
  • his easy-going nature BUT By nature, he is easy going.
  • one-way street BUT This street is one way.

Green check mark Remember to use a comma between two adjectives when you could have used and between them. Example I have classified, secret information.

Green check mark Hyphenate fractions and compound numbers 21 through 99 when they are spelled
out. Examples

  • Approximately three-fourths of the class is doing well.
  • Eighty-five pencils are missing from the office.

2. Hyphens with -ly words

Green check mark When the first word of the two-word modifier ends in -ly, hyphenate if the -ly word acts as one idea with the second word AND the -ly word can be used alone with the noun (i.e., the –ly word is an adjective). Examples:

  • friendly-looking man
    Here, friendly modifies looking and is an adjective describing man.
  • friendly little girl
    But here, friendly tells us nothing about the size of the child, so the meaning is clear and no hyphen is needed.
  • brightly lit room
    is an adverb which cannot be used to describe room (not brightly room, but brightly lit).

Green check mark When the word and can be inserted between the ly word and the next adjective, use a comma between them. Example A lovely, fragrant bouquet was sent to Jennifer on Valentine’s Day.

3. Hyphens with Prefixes

Green check mark The current trend is to do away with unnecessary hyphens. Therefore, attach prefixes and suffixes onto root words. Add a hyphen with a prefix when necessary for clarity:  Will she recover from her illness before I need to re-cover the sofa?

  • Examples where hyphen is not needed because of long use: noncompliance, copayment, semiconscious, fortyish
  • Exceptions 
    • Avoid three l’s in a row, which can cause pronunciation problems: The bell-like tone. The cell-locking system.
    • Use the hyphen with compound words or words already hyphenated: non-civil service position.

Green check mark Hyphenate prefixes when they come before proper nouns. Examples:

  • un-American but House Un-American Activities Committee (The latter is a proper noun, the name of an organization.)
  • pre-Columbian art sale or Pre-Columbian art sale (capitalization varies)

Green check mark Hyphenate prefixes ending in a or i only when the root word
begins with an a or i. Examples

  • ultra-ambitious
  • semi-invalid

Green check mark Double e’s and double o’s are usually made into one
word. Examples

  • preemployment
  • coordinate


  • de-emphasize,
  • co-owner (check your dictionary of choice)

Green check mark When a prefix ends in one vowel and a root word begins with a different vowel,
generally attach them without a hyphen. Examples:

  • antiaircraft
  • proactive

Green check mark Hyphenate all words beginning with self except for selfish and selfless. Examples:

  • self-assured
  • self-respect
  • self-addressed

Green check mark Use a hyphen with the prefix ex. Example His ex-wife sued for nonsupport.

4. Hyphens with re Words
Use the hyphen with the prefix re only when:
a. the re means again, AND
b. omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with another word.

  • The stamps have been reissued. Re means again BUT would not cause confusion with another word.
  • I must re-press the shirt. Re means again AND omitting the hyphen would have caused confusion with another word: She repressed the memory.

5. Numbers needing hyphens

Green check mark  Hyphenate all compound numbers from 21 to 99. Examples:

  • She has seventeen awards, but George as twenty-one.
  • The school earned a total of two hundred thirty-four awards this year.

Green check mark  In fractions, use a hyphen whether the compound is an adjective. Examples:

  • Two thirds of the students prefer pizza. (Students is a noun)
  • Two-thirds of the student athletes prefer pizza. (Student is an adjective here.)

Green check markWith mixed numbers (integer and fraction), hyphenate the adjective form but not the noun form: He arrived two-and-a-half hours late. The answer was two and a half.

Green check mark When part of a compound is used, a space follows the hyphen: a three- or four-credit course.


1. In a bibliography, some systems use three M-dashs for the second and later entry of the author’s name to indicate repeated works by the same author. I tend to discourage this usage because it’s not all that hard to do copy/paste these days and the dashes can lead to confusion, particularly if there is a page break. -bd [back]

2.  In addition to the three dot method, The Chicago Manual of Style indicates two other possibilities (the three-or-four-dot method and the rigorous method). In general, you can ignore those unless a publisher or professor indicates otherwise. [back]

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Cambridge Dictionaries Online.  The Cambridge University Press. n.d. Web. 30 July 2014.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online. 16th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2010. Web. 8 July 2014.

Corbett, Phillip. “After Deadline: Newsroom Notes on Usage and Style.” The New York Times. 13. April 2010. Web. Found 30 May 2014.

Hyphens.The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. University of Chicago Press. 2010. Web. Found 3 July 2014.

“Hypens.” The Owl at Purdue. (PDF) Purdue University. 2005. Web. Found 3 July 2014.

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

Purdue University. The Owl at Purdue.  2005. Web. Found 4 December 2005.

“Q&A.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online. The Chicago Manual of Style. Chicago University Press, 2010. Web. Found 30 May 2014.

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