“Your eyes see what your mind knows.”

It is important that there are no punctuation errors in any writeup. It is a big blot on the writer’s effort and it is best avoided. It’s not very gratifying when these mistakes or typos are pointed out. Hence, we need to periodically re-brush our basic writing skills. 

Some intricacies are not well known and understood. Here we make an attempt to underline some such nuances and improve our skills.

Let our minds know first . . .

Punctation’s main purpose is to help readers understand what you wish to say. It signals the grammatical or logical structure of the sentence.

It is broadly divided into two broad categories: The Stops and the other marks.


They correspond often loosely to the pauses and intonations in speech, vocal signals which help listeners follow what we say.

They include the period, the semi-colon, the comma and the dash.

Other marks

These are purely visual signals and do not mark pauses.

They include the apostrophe, the quotation mark, the hyphen, the parenthesis, brackets, the ellipsis, and diacritics.

We will look at the most commonly used (and sometimes misused) ones today. The other ones are less commonly used and in many cases, their use is relatively straight forward. However, we may consider them in the future if requested.


It’s a punctuation mark that looks like an extended hyphen and comes in two sizes: an em dash (—) and en dash (-).

Em literally means the amount of space the letter M will occupy when you typewrite it and En the space used as in the letter N.

Em dash

It is used to mark a sudden break from the general run of the passage. It is one of the most misused punctuation mark. 

Please note that classically there is no space before or after the dash. But modern usage has changed a bit and some are using spaces, especially in newsprint. Important is to be consistent and stick to one format.

Usage can be summarized as follows:

  • It introduces something that develops or what has gone before:

You must have noticed it, I’m sure—the tricolor fluttering atop the nondescript office.

  • It is used in pairs to show words in parenthesis or mark an intrusive sentence:

After finishing his schooling in Nainital—where he wrote the epic A Salute to a Hero in 1996—he migrated to Canada to study English literature.

  • To introduce an aside by the writer:

I occupied the suite in the Panorama hotel and Vicky the guest room—this purely for the strategic requirement.

  • Indirect speech to mark a break-off or an interruption:

I looked disgusted as he said, “You cannot go to—”

  • It is used to indicate a conclusion without expressing it:

“He is an excellent man but—”

  • A dash is used to introduce a repetition for oratorial effect:

Shakespeare was the greatest of all poets—Shakespeare, the intellectual ocean whose waves washed the continents of all thought.

  • To introduce a list:

He excelled in three branches—arithmetic, algebra and geometry.

  • To indicate what is not expected:

He delved deep into bowels of the earth and found instead of a hidden treasure—a button.

En dash

An en dash is used to show sequences:.


An A-Z guide

Again, there is no space before or after it. 

Do not mix two styles of writing it. e.g. from 2018-2038 is wrong usage.

It is also used to denote omission of letters or figures:

Mathew VII:5-8 

R–l (rascal)


Ellipsis is a series of three dots (or four in certain situations). The principal function is to mark the omission of material from a quotation.

  • The three dots are used to mark the deleted matter in a quoted sentence:

“The traditional texts of the Hindu religion . . . state that the priests are paid in gold.”

The omitted text in the above sentence is ‘the sacred Vedas’.

Note the spacing used: space is left between the preceding word, between each dot and the succeeding word.

  • Four dots are used to mark the end of the sentence:

Dante, someone has noted, is “the last great Catholic poet. . . .”

Note the spacing now: First dot marks the end of the sentence and sits tightly on the preceding word followed by the three dots of ellipsis.

In contrast, if it wasn’t the end of the sentence, it would be:

Dante, someone has remarked, is “the last . . . great Catholic poet.”

  • Now if the original sentence from which the final words were dropped was closed with a query, the appropriate stop is placed immediately after the final word, followed by the standard three dots.

It has been asked, “Was Bahadur Shah the last great Mughal emperor? . . .”

  • Ellipsis is used in dialogue to indicate doubt, indecision, weariness or even suspense.

She sighed and answered, “I really don’t know. . . .”

The 2036 Olympic Games will be held in . . . New Delhi!”

  • It is used to imply a conclusion which readers are expected to infer for themselves:

And we certainly know what to expect when the #countdown ends. . . .

Quotation marks

Quotation marks are used in direct quotes, mark certain titles and to give certain words a special meaning.

American writing uses double quotes, switching to single to include a quote within a quote. British writing does exactly the opposite. Use of both is equally acceptable. Sticking to one style and being consistent goes without saying.

Quotation Marks with Direct Quotations

A direct quotation consists of words actually spoken or written by someone. Whereas indirect reports the substance of what has been said.

Victor said, “We are going to a movie.”

Victor said that they were going to a movie.

Three ways a quotation can be introduced:

Naren said, “I am not in favour of this.”

“I am not in favour of this,” Naren said.

“I,” Naren said, “am not in favour of this.”

Notice the placement of commas in these three sentences. Also note that in the third case, there is no capitalisation in the second part.

Written quotations are also formally preceded by a colon:

Professor Gupta says: “Man is always on the hunt for inner peace.”

Matter is complicated as far as closing quotes are concerned. In American usage, commas and periods always come inside a final quote mark; semicolons and colons, outside.

Victor said, “We are not going.”

Victor said, “We are not going,” and they didn’t.

Victor said, “We are not going”; they didn’t.

Victor said, “We are not going”: why, he wondered.

But the same does not hold true in case of question marks and exclamation marks. It depends on whether the stop applies only to the quotation, only to the sentence containing the quotation, or to both.

Rama asked, “Are we eating out?”

Did Rama say, “We are eating out”?

Did Rama ask, “Are we eating out?”

The usage in British writing is slightly different and at times it can be confusing.

Quotation marks with titles

A title of a work is usually italicized. If it is part of something larger (magazine or anthology) then it is quoted.

Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone has been made into a movie.

“The Red Room” by H.G. Wells explores the depths of subconscious mind to reveal its lurking terror.

Titles of movies are italicized whereas those of television shows are quoted:

“Grey’s Anatomy” is a medical drama with a cult following.

Interstellar and Martian are the most scientifically-authentic Hollywood movies.

Quotations to signify special meaning

Sometimes we need to use a common word in a different sense. We then put it in quotes:

Doon school is one of the top-most “public” schools in India. 

They can be used for citation terms—to refer to something different that its conventional meaning.

“Horse trading” is a scourge of modern day coalition politics.

It can be used for quoting definitions.

“A LASER  is a device that emits light through a process of optical amplification based on the stimulated emission of electromagnetic radiation.”

Hope you have liked this write up on some basics of Punctuation. If you would like to know more about others, drop in a comment. We will try and feature it in the next WOW. 


Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

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Manoj Paprikar
Manoj Paprikar is a doctor by profession, a gynaecologist. He is an avid trekker, traveller, reader and a writer. He has a blog and has published a book. He plays Table Tennis and loves playing guitar.
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