Rules for Using Hyphens, En-Dashes, and Em-Dashes

What are Hyphens, En-Dashes, and Em-Dashes?

No doubt you’ve all heard of hyphens. They’re the little – that you find between some words, in phone numbers, and sometimes at the end of lines in old books, when it was necessary to break a word into two parts to make it fit. But what are the rules for using hyphens? And what on earth are en-dashes and em-dashes?

First, let’s look at the three together:

Hyphen –

En-Dash –

Em-Dash —

The hyphen is the shortest, the en-dash is slightly larger, and the em-dash is the largest of them all. Want to remember the difference between the en-dash and em-dash sizes? The en-dash and em-dash are named thusly because they are the width of the N and M in a font, respectively. (This is slightly less true now that we use proportionally-sized fonts almost exclusively, but an M is still wider than an N, just as an em-dash is wider than an en-dash.)

What are they used for?

The hyphen is most often used either to combine words, or when using compound modifiers. I’ll explain:

Combining Words

English is flexible, and English-speakers like to combine words that are frequently used together into what we call “portmanteau words.” Examples of such are words like labradoodle (labrador + poodle), bromance (brother + romance), and Medicaid (medicine + aid). Sometimes, however, words go through a transitional phase where they are hyphenated before becoming très chic portmanteau words. During that period, hyphens are used between the words to show that they’re joined and they must appear in that order to “make sense.” As they become more common, however, the words get “closer together” in our minds, and that hyphen is squished out in spelling. Go figure. In some ways, the hyphen acts like the apostrophe in a contraction, to show that something (in this case, a space) used to be there.

Compound Modifiers

compound modifier is two words, used together in a set order, which modify (describe) another word.


She is a well-read woman.

In this instance, the two words are well and read, they only make sense in that order (well first, then read second), and they modify one word, woman.

Because they appear before the word they are modifying, they are hyphenated as a compound modifier.  If they came after the word they were modifying, they would not be hyphenated:

The woman is well read.

As an aside, compound modifiers which end in -ly or which contain proper adjectives or nouns are not hyphenated. You know, just to keep it fun. Thus, you would write, “The North American grey squirrel is an unmitigated pest,” and it would not be hyphenated.

Some prefixes also require hyphens

The prefixes pre-, post-, anti-, auto-, extra-, and re-, and so on can be used with or without a hyphen, as long as it makes sense either way. If one way or the other makes more sense, use it. However, the prefixes ex- and self- should always use hyphens. With ex-, just remember it as a way to distance yourself. You know, from your slimy ex-whatever.

Other rules:

If the prefix is before a proper noun, hyphenate it.

If the prefix ends in the same vowel as begins the word to which it is being joined, use a hyphen. Unless it’s an o, in which case you try it out and see how it looks. Yes, I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t do this, I’m just the messenger.

Other Places to Use Hyphens

Hyphens are also part of this punctuated breakfast when used in phone numbers, social security numbers, and in a tasty little number called the hanging hyphen, such as when we discuss things like “seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature.” The hanging part is after seventeenth, of course, and it’s only hanging because it wants to get all compound with century like our bro eighteenth has there, but it’s too far away.

Use hyphens with ages

If the age comes before the thing that is that old and it is being used as an adjective or a noun, hyphenate it. Example: “The three-year-old dog refused to wear his boots.”

Age coming after the noun it is modifying? No hyphen. “The dog was three years old.” (Just like those compound modifiers up above, ya dig?)

Oh, and for reference, the AP guide removed the hyphen in email. It’s just email now. Don’t tell me to hyphenate it, because you can’t make me. Nyahh nyahh.

Okay, if hyphens are so handy, where do we use en-dashes and em-dashes?


En-dashes are connectors, and you can think of them as replacing the words to or through. They may be used to connect numbers in a range of numbers, such as those found in dates, or in page numbers.


“Class, tonight, please read pages 120–168.”

“He lived from 1918–1978.”

There are also times when an en dash is used rather than a hyphen, but I’m going to be honest and say that those instances start getting a little cray-cray, and we don’t need to go there.


What about em-dashes? Em-dashes are super-awesome things! You know how people use … all the time to make phrases stand out? That’s a great place to use an em-dash instead!


Incorrect: “I love em-dashes…and I’m not alone…because they are nifty.”

Correct: “I love em-dashes—and I’m not alone—because they are nifty.”

See how that worked? The em-dash can act as a stand-in for a comma or even a parenthesis when part of the sentence needs to be “set off” from the other parts. It’s like em-dashes are two arms for the center part of that sentence, holding the other parts from coming in and taking over and running over all that emphasis that the lover of em-dashes is not alone.

Don’t over-use em-dashes, but they really are handy. (Also, note that there are no spaces between the words and the em-dashes. Remember that when you use them.)

I hope this guide makes you a super-happy user of hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes—and that you’re able to use them without any self-doubt whatsoever, from 2015–onwards. 


Writing on the Go: Why a ****** is a Writer’s Best Friend


I have a best friend. He is a lovely, intelligent person. However, he has just been demoted because he doesn’t do something important for me:

He doesn’t help me defeat writer’s block.

My life is busy. I’m a student, a parent, a writer, an employee, and a business owner. I have a phone, tablet, or Kindle in my hands 24/7, and if I do not, it’s because I’ve got my hands on one of my computers. My human best friend gets worried when I take longer than a half hour to respond to a text. Bless his sweet little cotton socks.

However, as a writer, I know that sometimes I need to unplug … mostly

I compose electronically. I type over 90 wpm (more if I’m all hotted up about something), and my handwriting is terrible. I type everything. However, as writers know, it’s very easy to go from la la la writing click click to hey, I just spent two hours looking at cat videos.

Unplugging is the answer. Better still, unplugging and getting to your happy writing place so that you don’t feel the pain of being unplugged.

Banger, my happy writing place is not suitable for electronics

Oh, my writer friend, I feel your pain. Neither is mine. I do my best writing when water is involved, be it a bath, a lake, a boat, whatever. For some reason, if I have writer’s block, a shower washes it away. Need to come up with a story? Water. I’ll be ready to write before my fingers are even wrinkly. Try it. You may be surprised.

My devices do not like water. They do, however, fit in these:


I love Ziploc bags. Did you know that any size iPhone (yes, even those enormous 6+ ones) will fit in a quart-sized ziploc? So will most Kindles. And capacitive touch screens work through Ziploc bags.

While I cannot (for liability reasons) say that a Ziploc will make your devices safe for use anywhere you go, if you use them and you are careful about sealing them, you may feel more comfortable bringing them to the bath, the shower, the beach, the lake, and so on. At the very least, you’ll keep them safer from other environmental issues like sand and dirt. Then you can use them without fear, wherever your happy writing place is.

Banger, are you seriously suggesting that I compose on my phone?

Well … yes. I’m aware that typing on a phone is more cumbersome than on a laptop. That said, many of us are pretty good at it now, and if you’re a writer who hates the interface, take a moment to think about what part of it you hate the most. Is it the writing, or the reading?

I also thought that composing on a phone would be a terrible idea, until I tried it and realized that what I didn’t like about it was trying to read long compositions on the phone. As far as typing them, however, I was able to hit flow just as easily using the phone as the laptop.

In fact, maybe even more so. If I had to put my finger on why composing on the phone works so well for me, it hinges on a few things:

It gets me outside of my work environment

    If I’m on my phone away from my computer, I’m not as tempted to answer e-mails, check in at work, or do other activities that are a bit distracting. I’m “away” from work, and that physical change helps underline that.

    It gets me focused on one thing

    A phone has a small screen which can only focus on one task. That leads me to be more focused.

    It slows me down–and that’s good 

    If I’m galloping through writing something, I might not take the time to mentally explore everything about my scene, the characters and their needs, and so on. Typing a little more slowly gives my brain time to really dive into the scene and see it, not just machine-gun fire words onto the screen.

    It lets me take notes

    If I’m not into full-fledged writing mode yet, I can use voice or written notes to prompt me for when I am, later.

    I can dictate

    Even without a headset, you can dictate long pieces of writing into your phone, either as a recording or as a voice transcription. Be prepared for some comedy errors if you’re transcribing. More importantly, be prepared for the effect of “speaking for” your characters if you’re dictating. You may find they gain more depth, feeling, and personality.

       Free yourself and your devices: grab a Ziploc

      This summer, grab a new outfit for your favorite mobile friend, and get out of the spare bedroom, the Starbucks, the library, or wherever you write, and experiment with writing on the go. Wrap up your devices safely in a plastic bag, if needed, and free your devices too!

      (Oh, and if you need power for your devices on the go, too, I have one of these. Love it!)

      Good writing!

      Author Services: Comparing WordPress vs GoDaddy’s Website Builder

      Small Business Websites

      I recently completed a client’s website. While he is not an author, he provides small business services in a related field, and his original designer was unable to complete. His needs were slightly different to that of an author, in that he needed a web presence site rather than an ongoing content site, and he needed it fixed up quickly. With that in mind, I’d like to compare working with GoDaddy’s Website Builder (V7) to working with a standalone (not WordPress installation:


      There are a lot of variables involved in pricing out websites. That said, we’ll compare the raw pricing that I give my clients versus the pricing that GoDaddy offers as a baseline. Line item changes, such as different domain suffixes, different bandwidth needs, and so forth will change pricing, but let’s price out a standard .com domain for the two, with the caveat that I do not normally offer my services through GoDaddy, but instead prefer NameCheap. Thus, looking for the domain, we get the following:

      Comparison: WordPress vs GoDaddy
      GoDaddy $14.99 per year

      “Privacy Protection” $9.99 per year

      “Business” Hosting with Website Builder $9.99 per month

      Total: $144.86 per year

      WordPress (as per Interrobang’s Author Services) $10.69 per year

      “WhoisGuard” $2.88 per year

      Hosting $9.88 per year

      WordPress Installation $Free

      Total: $23.45 per year

      Obviously there is quite a difference there. Why, then, would you choose the GoDaddy option?

      Feature Comparison

      Pros for GoDaddy’s Website Builder: It is a drag and drop, WYSIWYG editor. Most functionality is available without writing a lick of code.  Social media sharing is easy, mobile site creation is automatic. SEO optimization is fairly straightforward. The contact form is very easy to create. There are a number of widgets, and the potential to add others through adding HTML. But if you’re willing to do that, I’m guessing you could move to a better solution than GoDaddy’s Website Builder. Bottom line: if you can make a nice looking PowerPoint presentation, you can probably make a nice looking website through this tool.

      That said, I’m betting that you, like me, have sat through some pretty awful PowerPoint presentations.

      Cons: There is no way to edit a page’s HTML/CSS, and there are no stylesheets. If you change your font in one place, get ready to change it everywhere. It appears that once a page is published it cannot be hidden, but instead must be deleted to get it out of the hamburger menu. The hamburger menu doesn’t appear to be customizable (I may come back to update that comment later if I figure out how to do so.) Pages and sites cannot be password protected. Blog content feeds can be linked to, but will not appear natively on the site. Mobile site optimization isn’t as flexible as I’d like. Analytic tools can be added, but only from third parties.

      The best reasons to use GoDaddy’s website builder are if you:

      • Want to do it all yourself without a designer
      • Want a static website
      • Do not wish to add any blog content or update your content regularly
      • Do not intend to switch to a shopfront at any point
      • Like the pre-made themes


      Pros for WordPress running on your own site: If you like the premade themes your time to up and running is minimal. (I’ve gone from installation to live and posting in under an hour previously.) So. Very. Flexible. WordPress is now considered an Open Source content management system, not just a blogging platform. As a result there are tens of thousands of plugins that support any variation of blogging/content management. Creating a mobile theme is  easy thanks to JetPack. You can change anything you want. Anything. A-ny-thing. And if your content changes a lot, WordPress is ready for you.

      Cons: Unless your site (or your maintenance company) ensures you’re running the latest code, there can be a gap between version deployments and site updates. If you’re doing it yourself, you need to feel confident that you can deploy the code on your site. If you want to customize things, you’ll need to be willing to go under the hood. While it’s not rocket surgery under there, at first it can seem daunting. It can be a challenge to find the plugin that will work best for you, and at some point that plugin may no longer be updated. And while you can change anything, that’s only true as long as you can find a way to do so (but there are some easy ways). There can be small text-handling issues that will drive the nitpicky crazy until they can resolve them.

      The best reasons to use WordPress are if you:

      • Have frequently updated, active content
      • Want to be able to restructure your site layout on the fly
      • Don’t mind tinkering a bit, or are willing to hire a designer to get you up and running
      • Know you’re in this for the long-haul and want a site that grows with you
      • Want an infinitely-customizable experience that keeps up with technologies almost as fast as they emerge

      My Feelings

      I need to say that I’m used to WordPress and I have never used GoDaddy’s Website Builder prior to this experience, so I am biased. I did find certain aspects of the Website Builder frustrating. I come from a graphic design background (before I was a network engineer) and I like my graphics precise. I want to position and size things on a pixel by pixel basis. Image positioning was in some ways easier with GoDaddy, as I just dragged and dropped where I wanted images to land. However, when I clicked on them (or on text) they often jumped a few pixels, which drove me mad.

      I also found the inability to hide pages infuriating. I wanted to leave my customer’s old website intact after the cutover, but hidden. I could take it out of the main navigation menu, but not out of the hamburger menu. This may be user error on my part, but I’m still looking for a way to fix that menu.

      It was much easier to work in columns or different page areas using GoDaddy’s Website Builder. I find that WordPress can be a bit flaky when dealing with columns. I’m still looking for good solutions to some of my problems there.

      There did not appear to be an option to retina-optimize a GoDaddy site. That said, mobile optimization was made easier thanks to a one-click “Hide from Mobile User” option for all text and images. (I utilized that in order to serve YouTube clips to both desktop and mobile users. My desktop users see a silent, autoplaying videoclip and text underneath inviting them to click to see the whole video. Those elements are hidden to my mobile viewers, who instead see an image I placed under the desktop video. The image is a preview of the video with a fake YouTube play button. Once the user clicks on the play button, it opens up the linked content.)

      Would I use the GoDaddy Website Builder again? Yes … if that was my client’s choice. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible. However, I would not recommend it for anyone who wanted to update their content frequently. For them, I’d say WordPress every time. There is simply no comparison.

      Was it significantly easier than WordPress? For a novice user, almost certainly. However, keep in mind that my client had turned over this installation to a designer, and then to me as a second designer when that designer couldn’t produce for him. That, to me, is telling.

      Final Decision?

      I’m sticking with WordPress for myself, and that will continue to be my recommendation for my authors and writing clients who want to write, not code. I am much happier rolling out WordPress based sites than GoDaddy Website Builder sites. Which isn’t to say I won’t do it again, but I have my preferences.


      About Proofreading

      We hates proofreading, my precious. We hates it. 

      Wait, what?

      Banger, you work as an editor! You … you proofread for a living.

      Well, yes. I do. However, before I had this job, long before, I was a writer. My words were my darlings, and proofreaders smeared nasty red pen all over them.

      We hates it, my precious.

      Until we didn’t. What I found was that as I became more accomplished as a writer, I started to understand the nuances and niceties of what my proofreaders were doing for me.

      Yes, sometimes they were wrong. They were wrong, wrong, wrong wrongity wrong wrong like the wrong person becoming the wrong mayor of Wrongsville.

      More often, they were right.

      What I realized is that many times, my proofreaders made the same changes that I would have made myself had I looked at my pieces with fresh eyes. The things that I didn’t spot–because my work was too close to me–they saw straight away. They saw typos and clumsy wording, and they highlighted things that I would have seen if I had time to put my writing away, then come back to it afresh.

      Why, Banger, are you telling us this?

      Look, I’m going to be completely honest:

      I make mistakes. I make mistakes on this site. I type things, and then come back to them a week later and smack myself in the head and wince and hope that my readers saw what a horrible, heinous thing I did in my own prose. I’ve been there, my friends, and it seems that sometimes I live there. I’m building a blanket fort, and I have crayons. Come visit.

      If you’re a writer, you’re there too.

      As much as it pains writers to say this, we need proofreaders at the very least, and editors if we want to get further. We need people to rub red ink on our pages until they look like they’re bleeding so we can come in and patch up the wounds. It hurts, and it’s painful, and it sucks.

      And it makes us better writers.

      My mother asks me why I edit for doctoral candidates. “Shouldn’t they be able to write by now?”

      That’s not the point. They can write. Writers can write. Authors can write. They can be good writers, but still make mistakes, or have inconsistencies, or fumble on the keyboard, or have their brains flake out on a word and write cucumber when they mean to write condominium, and they might not notice. Because all the diligence in the world won’t make our prose new to us once it came out of our brains. We need fresh eyes, and different viewpoints.

      That’s why I edit for doctoral candidates, and for indie authors, and for business writers, and for other students. And that’s why I sit down and pass my pages and a pen over to someone I trust enough to do the same for me.

      I’m not saying that you can’t be perfect without an editor. I’m just saying that I haven’t managed it yet myself, and none of my authors or writers or students have either.

      However, there are things you can do to self-proofread

      The first and most important is to put the writing down and let it age. Let time pass and Thorin sing about gold, then come back to your writing and give it another shot. You may find things.

      If you don’t have time to do that, the next best thing (in my opinion) is to read your writing aloud, slowly. You will stumble at times; pay attention to those. Often those are the places where your brain had a hiccough because it was trying to parse something that wasn’t quite fluid and eloquent. If you falter, highlight, and come back to it after that first, slow read.

      You can read your writing backwards. However, this is only good for catching very basic errors, like typos. Don’t rely upon it.

      You can record your writing and play it back. Yes, I know, ugh. But it can be helpful.

      Of course, if you need more than that, you can get friends and loved ones to read your work for you, although that can be nerve-wracking. If you’re an academic, check to see if your institution has a writing center or writing lab, as they’re often free of charge and available on very short notice. Or you can hire a proofreader. (Hi, I’m available.) However, whatever you do, try not to hate it too much, because it will help you become a better writer. Anything that makes you examine your work will do that, but this sort of feedback can be a powerful tool for good. (My precious.)

      Word Choices: Drastic versus Dramatic

      These two words are not usually interchangeable. They do not mean the same thing. If people keep using them improperly, Banger will be forced to take drastic action to make a dramatic statement about the use of these two words.

      Drastic means severe or serious. It implies something negative–that is its connotation, or the feel of the word.

      In a sentence, you might say: “His sprained ankle caused a drastic reduction in his ability to run.”

      Drastic implies something bad.

      Dramatic means sudden or extreme. Things that are dramatic do not need to be negative–the word does not have that connotation.

      Thus, in a sentence, dramatic might be used as, “Her new haircut was a dramatic change which suited her.”

      In this sentence, dramatic implies big.

      Sometimes things can be both drastic and dramatic:

      “The 50-degree drop in temperature was both dramatic and drastic.”  The change was both sudden and severe, so it was drastic and dramatic.

      Still unsure of which to use? If you can substitute the word bad where you’d use either drastic or dramatic, you should use drastic. If you can substitute the word big, use dramatic. 

      Hope that helps. If you still have questions, leave a comment below!

      Kerning: Outwitting Page Counts when you’re Wordy

      Remember back in my Automating Paragraph and Hanging Indentation posts when I said there was a wrong way to indent? I talked about indenting, and how the use of proportional fonts made indenting things with spaces a bad idea. This is because of something called kerning.


      Kerning is the spacing between letters. Previously, when we were using non-proportional fonts, like Courier, each letter took up the same amount of space as every other letter, whether it was a skinny little l or a big old w. As you can imagine, that meant it looked a little clumsy when printed, like this:

      Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 5.59.21 PM

      Whereas proportional fonts, like the one this blog is displayed in, or like Times New Roman, base the amount of space each letter takes up on how wide they are. This means that the fonts are more pleasant to read, in part because of kerning, or adjusting the amount of space between each letter, like so:

      Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 5.59.31 PM

      Why does this matter? Well…there’s a way to use kerning to be a little sneaky.

      Let’s say that your professor has given you an essay assignment, but rather than giving you a word count, they’ve given you a page count. You can only submit ten pages.

      Except you’re one of those students who uses insanely long words. You’re being penalized for your vocabulary! That’s not fair, and and one thing Banger has is an absolutely overdeveloped “justice gland.” (Another thing she has is a ridiculous vocabulary, hence maybe possibly using this little trick herself just a few times shhhhh we don’t mention this in public.)

      Anyway, back to your paper. You can submit ten pages, but you have eleven, and that’s edited down from twelve or thirteen. What are you to do?

      We’re learning about kerning, baby. 

      Your professor may set what font and size you may use, and they may specify MLA or APA format, which means your margins are set. However, you can change the way your font works on the page in almost undetectable ways.

      I’ve created a sample document and generated 455 words of Lorem Ipsum. They just break onto the second page of my Word document in Times New Roman 12pt font, with 1″ margins top, bottom, left, and right. Let’s see if we can make all that fit on one page:

      First, highlight all of your document by hitting ctrl-a (Windows) or command-a (Mac). Then, go to font properties. On a Mac, that is done by clicking on Format, then Font.

      Format, Font

      That will open font properties, which looks the same on both Windows and Macs.

      Font Properties Main

      Then, click on Advanced, then spacing, and select condensed.

      Now comes the fun part: Click into the space where it says “By,” and type in .1, then hit return. If your paper has shrunk enough to hit your page count, you’re done.

      For my Lorem Ipsum text to fit on one page, I had to use .2. You may need to experiment, but as long as you can keep the number under about .5, few people will notice. Very few people indeed. Here are my text at normal kerning on top, and condensed by .4 on the bottom. Would you notice?

      Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 6.34.23 PM

      I know, pretty awesome, right? Now, what I will ask is that you don’t use this to torture your poor professors, but if you absolutely, positively need to fit a few more words on a page and you’ve done your best to edit, kerning is your friend.

      And you are welcome. 😉

      Comma, Comma, Comma rules.

      I love commas. Ask anyone who has read my writing; I love commas. I have a comma bracelet. I’m wearing a comma necklace at this very moment. I have long dreamt of the perfect comma tattoo. Me and commas–we’ve got a thing going on.

      However, as much as I wish it were possible, I cannot sprinkle my little punctuation darlings willy-nilly throughout my writing. There are rules about these things.

      Quick Comma Rules

      These are the quick and dirty, gotta-know-’em rules you should just read and commit to heart now:

      1. Use a comma after an introductory word or phrase

      Example 1: Suddenly, he walked into the wall beside the door.
      Example 2: However, she remained unconvinced it was a good idea.

      2. Use commas both before and after phrases containing nonessential information

      Example 1: This blog, written by Banger, is very helpful.
      Example 2: His biological mother, who gave birth to him, is a nice lady.

      In these examples, the information within the commas is nonessential. It could be removed from the sentence and not change the overall meaning. Banger is the only person who writes this blog, therefore it is nonessential to name who writes it. (Although please, feel free. Tell your mother. Wake the neighbors.) In the second instance, a biological mother, except in extraordinary situations, is the person who gives birth to someone. Therefore, for 99.999% of instances, plus or minus an instance, it’s nonessential to indicate a biological mother gave birth to someone. Indeed, it would be critical to indicate if that were not the case.

      3. Use commas to separate items in lists containing three or more things

      Example 1: I need to purchase cream cheese, smoked salmon, and bagels.
      Example 2: Graduate students like coffee, Diet Coke, and sleep.

      Please note: I am a member of Team Oxford Comma as I feel that it adds to clarity in sentences. That last comma, the one before the and in both sentences, is an Oxford comma. Without it, sentences like this happen: To proofread, Banger likes a printout, blue and green highlighters and coffee.

      WUT. Wait, I do not like blue and green coffee. Blue milk I can see, young Padawan, but not coffee.

      This said, the Oxford comma is NOT usually used in the United Kingdom. I know. It’s ironic. Just go with me on this.

      4. Use a comma to separate two interchangeable adjectives

      Example 1: Writing is a fun, easy hobby.
      Example 2: That smart, funny woman is my friend.

      In both of those examples the order of the adjectives can be swapped without changing the meaning of the sentences, so they’re interchangeable adjectives, and they need a comma between them. If the adjectives cannot be swapped they are not interchangeable and should not have a comma between them.

      5. Use a comma to separate two independent clauses joined with a conjunction

      Example 1: The music was loud, and it could be heard all the way around the block.
      Example 2: Her hair was curly, and it was tied back in a ribbon that had polka dots.

      Both of these examples need both a comma and a conjunction. Why? Because they’re independent clauses. Independent clauses can be complete sentences by themselves. In example 1, we could make the following two sentences:

      The music was loud. It could be heard all the way around the block.

      If we just slapped a comma in there between those two, we’d have a comma splice–where two sentences are joined with a comma and without a conjunction. It’d be:

      The music was loud, it could be heard all the way around the block.

      We could theoretically write it with the conjunction and without the comma, as the clauses are short, giving us the following:

      The music was loud and it could be heard all the way around the block.

      However, if either of those clauses were longer, skipping the comma wouldn’t work. It’s best to just use the comma.

      6. Use a comma before dialogue (and before a break in dialogue)

      Example 1: He said, “My goodness, that was an unspeakably bad pecan pie.”
      Example 2: “I must know,” the professor said, “how you learned how to use commas so well!”

      Those are what I consider the most critical comma rules to remember. There are others–oh yes, there are so many others–but many of them are to do with how names, addresses, and dates are handled, or get pretty in-depth and specific. These few basic rules will get you through most of your work.

      Go forth and punctuate, young Padawan.

      Outlining a Five Paragraph Essay

      If you’re a student, you will be writing five paragraph essays. I guarantee it.

      What is a five paragraph essay?

      This is one of the times when the clue is in the question! A five paragraph essay is a format that is specifically designed to guide a student into doing several things:

      • Creating a catchy opening line
      • Making a firm thesis statement
      • Providing a transition from the thesis (or introductory) paragraph to the first supporting paragraph
      • Organizing supporting arguments in a cohesive, coherent fashion
      • Providing a transition from the supporting paragraphs to the summary
      • Wrapping up in a solid summary paragraph

      All of this is done in five paragraphs

      Introduction: Introduce the subject with general discussion leading up to a thesis statement (what the “point” of your essay is, or what you’re going to prove), then transition into the first of three body paragraphs.

      Three body paragraphs: each body paragraph discusses one point, concept, example, or idea that helps support your thesis statement.

      Conclusion paragraph: the conclusion paragraph restates your thesis statement without repeating it word for word, and then reiterates a very general summary of your support, then finishes with a statement that wraps up your essay concisely.

      How should you organize a five paragraph essay?

      I am a HUGE fan of outlining. Outlining is a beautiful thing, especially as essays get longer. It may seem like an unnecessary step, but as a seasoned writer, I outline. I outline like my life depends on it. If I’m writing a thirty page paper, I’ll have at least a ten page outline, and it is a thing of beauty.


      Outlining is the writer’s opportunity to organize their thoughts and make notes before they have to write. Some people are great at writing and not great at organizing. Outlining helps. Some people are great at organizing and not so good at writing. Outlining helps there too. The idea is that outlining breaks a big task into a few smaller, much easier ones, and after you try it once you will realize that once the outline is done, the paper is more than half-way written. Trust me: I know of what I speak.

      How to Outline?

      I was taught how to outline by a teacher who loooooooved her some Roman numerals. I still do it that way (and that was thirty-five years ago), but you don’t have to. The key to outlining is to find a system that works for you, and allows you to see the flow of information. Let’s do one on the fly–outlining a five paragraph essay:

      My Summer Vacation Plans, by Banger, aged oh-no-you-didn’t-think-I’d-say

      I.) Introduction

      A.) Catchy opening line: Must be related to the topic, and relevant.

      B.) Short, general discussion of how awesome summer vacation is:

      1.) It’s warm;
      2.) There is no school (except I’m a grad student, boohoo!);
      3.) I can go places, and I love to go places!

      C.) Thesis statement: My summer vacation will be fantastic because I am going on a road trip to New York to do super-nifty things, including eating frozen custard, swimming in a lake, and going to one of my favorite places, Camp Scratch-a-‘Squitobite.

      D.) Transition statement: I know exactly what I’ll do as soon as I get to New York, and that’s go for frozen custard.

      II.) Body Paragraph One

      A.) It’s all about the frozen custard

      1.) One reason frozen custard is awesome;
      2.) Another reason;
      3.) A third reason. (Trust me, be glad I’m not saying why it’s awesome, or you would want some now.)

      B.) Transition statement: If you think frozen custard is incredible, let me tell you about swimming in lakes!

      III.) Body Paragraph Two

      A.) Lakes are amazing!

      1.) You can swim in them, and they are composed of 67.95% fish pee. TRUE FACT;
      2.) They have seaweed, and you can throw it where people are about to swim and make them freak out and scream;
      3.) Swimming in lakes is easier for beginning swimmers than swimming in the ocean, because the waves are smaller and the water doesn’t burn their eyes

      B.) Transition statement: What’s even better is that I know a place where I can get frozen custard and swim in a lake. It’s win-win!

      IV.) Body Paragraph Three

      A.) That place is Camp Scratch-a-‘Squitobite.

      1.) My family has a long tradition of going to Camp Scratch-a-‘Squitobite. My grandpa went there, my dad, I went, and now my kids go;
      2.) The biggest, juiciest mosquitoes in the world live there, and they give us rides to the frozen custard stand;
      3.) We get to play in the lake too, and have a great time.

      B.) Transition statement: Camp is a lot of fun. We swim in lakes and eat custard with our mosquito friends.

      V.) Conclusion

      A.) Restate (but do not repeat!) the thesis statement:

      1.) I am looking forward to my summer vacation, because it is going to be really fun.

      a.) The things that will make it fun are eating some super-terrific frozen custard near the lake;
      b.) swimming in a lake made up of 67.95% fish pee and lots of seaweed;
      c.) going to Camp Scratch-a-‘Squitobite, where my kids and I can play in the lake and eat custard, but not simultaneously, because fish pee.

      Wait, that’s an outline?

      Sure! That’s the way I like to outline, because once I’m ready to write, the essay, as I said, is pretty much written. It didn’t take very long to write that outline–longer just because I was getting silly in it–and it may take less time now to write the essay than it did the outline. The hard part is done: I know what I’ll say where in the essay and about how I’ll say it.

      Furthermore, if I needed to add in more detail, or an extra paragraph, or move something around, it’s easy to do so when everything is still in outline form.

      Did that help? If you’re a student and you try outlining for the first time, let me know how it worked for you. I’d love to hear!

      MLA Formatted Quotations and Quotation Marks

      Why, When, and How to use Quotations?

      If you’re writing an essay in MLA format and you need to either incorporate dialogue or textual material from another source, you will need to know how to handle MLA formatted quotations. You will also need to know how to handle MLA formatted parenthetical citations, but that’s another post.

      There are some rules, however, that you need to abide by:

      • Only use a quotation if it’s necessary and adds something your words cannot
      • If you’re quoting someone else, you must give them credit
      • Longer quotes (four or more lines) must be in block quote format
      Only Use a Quotation if it’s Necessary

      Some professors or teachers give assignments that require you to incorporate quotes in your material. While that means it’s up to you to find appropriate quotes from good source material, it is also up to you to make sure they fit in the body of your work. Do not simply stuff a quote in because you need one. Likewise, if you have a quote that contains material you could say better yourself, say it yourself! No more than 20% of the average paper should be made up of quotations. After all, your professor or teacher wants to see what you know and say about the material, not what someone else does.

      As for what constitutes good source material, it’s never Wikipedia, or online encyclopedias, or or Your best sources will come from websites that end in .edu or .gov as those are the most rigorously vetted sources of information.

      If You’re Quoting Someone Else, You Must Give them Credit

      That’s what in-text, or parenthetical citations are for. If you use someone else’s words, paraphrase their words, use their words but substitute some of your own in a few places, or even reuse your words from a previous assignment without permission from both the  person for whom you wrote the assignment initially, and the person to whom you are submitting your work, you are plagiarizing.


      I’m not kidding. I work with student writers every day, and I can tell within two or three minutes if a paper is plagiarized and which parts are plagiarized. Give me another minute and I’ll have the source(s) identified. I’m not trying to trick you, I’m telling you straight out. YOU WILL BE CAUGHT. YOU MAY BE EXPELLED. DON’T RISK IT.

      Okay, back to quotes. If you quote someone’s words directly,  put them in quotation marks, and then finish the quotation with a citation.

      Example: “This study documents what many observers of current English usage have suspected to be true: singular they is well established in the public writing of adult Americans” (Meyers 234).

      This quote is less than five lines long, is used word for word, is written by someone with the last name of Meyers, and is on page 234 of their text. Note that the final punctuation from the quote comes after the citation.

      But what if you’re paraphrasing?

      If you had to look something up to use it in your paper, you need to cite your source. The only time you do not need to cite a source is if the fact is considered common knowledge.

      How do you determine if something is common knowledge?

      Use the “ask your mama” rule. If you can call up your mama right this second and ask her, “Mama, what’s the current stance of adult Americans regarding the use of the singular they?” and she comes back with, “It’s well established and accepted within the realm of public use,” then you are good to go. Otherwise, cite.

      Citing a Paraphrased Source:
      Example: A study has demonstrated that American adults are happy to use the singular they in every day spoken and written language (Meyers 234).

      You see that? You see? I paraphrased the material, but I still had to cite it the same way. That is because it’s effectively the same material, just not used as a quote this time. If you use someone’s thoughts or words, you have to cite them. End of discussion.

      But what about a longer quote? That’s when a block quote format is used:

      This study documents what many observers of current English usage have suspected to be true: singular they is well established in the public writing of adult Americans. The study suggests also that many writers find generic pronoun constructions of the he or she type acceptable alternatives to singular they or masculine generic pronouns. (Meyers 234)

      A block quote is indented 1″ from the left, does not start with quotation marks, does not end with quotation marks, and the final punctuation comes before the citation. Crazy, no? (Crazy, yes!)

      What About Putting Regular Stuff in Quotation Marks?
      If you’re writing dialogue, or if for some reason you have material in quotation marks that is not a quote from another source, in America the rules on the ending punctuation change. In that instance, the ending punctuation goes within the quotation marks. If you are in the UK, the punctuation stays on the outside.

      Example: He looked at her and said, “You’re a real dork for writing a grammar blog, you know?”

      See? Punctuation on the inside.


      Thanks to Miriam Watkins Meyers for her text excerpts. Yes, I just happened to have her journal article next to me, cited as below:

      Meyers, Miriam Watkins. “Current Generic Pronoun Usage: An Empirical Study.”
      American Speech 65.3 (1990): 228-237. Web. 27 Apr. 2015


      Who That?

      I know some superb writers who have a funny little quirk in their writing; namely that they misuse that and who. It’s quite common, actually, and as far as word choice errors go, this is the one to have. It rarely impairs readability. However, sometimes it does make sentences slightly unclear, and on that basis I would flag up a substitution of that for who as an error.

      Now, my editing clients know that I don’t just edit their work; I also try to help them improve their writing skills if they so desire. That means that I’ll make comments on  issues. If the issues are reoccurring, I try to help by making my comments…memorable.

      Who Owl

      Actual Editorial Comment, Honest

      That versus Who

      When you are speaking about things, use that.

      “I had a burger that was awesome.” “I use a hand lotion that smells incredible.” “He and I went to a coffee shop that was seriously overrated.” In each of these instances, that is obviously the correct word to use. It would sound weird to say, “He and I went to a coffee shop who was seriously overrated.

      When you are speaking about people, use who or whom.

      While using who in the place of that sounds strange, a lot of people do not notice when they use that in the place of who or whom. They may say, “I know a guy that goes to a great Armenian restaurant a lot.” However, it should be, “I know a guy who goes to a great Armenian restaurant a lot.” “My professor is the type of person who really wants her students to learn.” “My mentor is a woman for whom money comes second to professional satisfaction.”

      Who Owls

      This is the comment my client will receive the next time he makes this error. Yes, he will.

      Wait, uh, those owls. What about animals? Or aliens?

      Truthfully, that depends. You will need to determine what level of personhood you’re assigning your owls, or animals, or aliens. If you’re talking about your childhood dog and things that he or she has done, you may feel more comfortable using who. If you’re talking about an abstract concept of cats who like to knock things over, you may want to use that–although the cats will never forgive you. Aliens? You may need to measure their slime to limb quotient, but if they’re acting like people, you’ll probably want to refer to them like people. Since they have rayguns and all, and you don’t want to be the person who got zapped first. Just saying. Yeah…that.