Business Writing Lesson: Correct Punctuation — Rules & Grammar Guide

Lesson 2: Have A Hyphen or Two

In Lesson 1, you learned about commas. In order to finish brushing up on your punctuation, this lesson contains tips about additional punctuation marks that are often used incorrectly in business writing.

Always remember, these aren’t arbitrary rules designed to irritate you; they’re designed to help make written forms of communication clearer: something that’s discussed in more detail in Lesson Four. However, they can also help make it more enjoyable to read, too! An article or report that uses nothing but short sentences with commas and periods is going to seem awfully monotonous after just a few minutes of reading. Learning these tips will help you create easy-to-read business documents that keep your readers’ attention at the same time.

Business Writing Proper Punctuation

Semi-colons (the comma with the dot above it) are most often used in two main places: lists where the items in the list have commas in them and to join two sentences together. We covered joining two complete sentences with a semi-colon in Lesson 1, so now let’s take a look at long, complex lists.

Example – Developing healthful habits includes many things such as eating foods that are nutritious, but that fit your medical needs as well; exercising daily, within your current health parameters; and balancing the four main aspects of life: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual.

The example is punctuated correctly. Note that if the list used commas to separate its elements, the commas within the elements plus the others would create confusion as to which phrases went with each element.

A good rule of thumb to follow on using a colon is that there should always be a complete sentence on one side or the other, and perhaps even both. Typically, a colon signals that additional clarification is coming after it.

Example – The importance lies in balancing the four main aspects of life: mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual.

The example is correct in that it contains a complete sentence to the left of the colon. Notice that the information after the colon helps clarify something before it, what the four main aspects of life are.

Colons are often used incorrectly, especially to lead into bulleted or numbered lists.

Example – The top priorities are: o mental o emotional o physical The example is punctuated incorrectly due to the first rule listed above for colons. to the left of the colon is a sentence fragment “The top priorities are.” and to the right of it is just a list. In order to keep the colon, the fragment on the left needs some kind of noun phrase or subject complement to turn it into a complete sentence. A common and easy way to correct this is to change it to “The top priorities are listed as follows:” However, you might also choose to just leave the colon out completely, but leave the text as is. (Also, note that a bulleted or numbered list does NOT have punctuation at the end of each item unless that item is a complete sentence and requires a period at the end.)

Quotation marks are used for a variety of things in writing, the most common being dialogue. That subject could take up a lesson by itself, but suffice it to say that business writing doesn’t have much call for dialogue. The other place quotation marks are often used in writing, and especially business writing, are to offset a particular word or phrase. This is becoming less and less common with the advent of word processing programs that allow for easy insertion of a bold, italicized, or highlighted font type. However, quotation marks can still form a useful part of any writer’s toolbox.

Example – In the previous sentence, the words “bold,” “italicized,” and “highlighted” all refer to methods of offsetting particular pieces of text to give them emphasis.

The example is punctuated correctly. Note the commas after “bold” and “italicized.” One of the most common mistakes writers make is placing those other punctuation marks behind the second half of the quotation mark, like this: “…the words ‘bold’, ‘italicized’, and ‘highlighted’…” Another common – and lazy – error is to just include the entire list in quotation marks: …’bold, italicized, and highlighted’…” Neither of these is correct according to conventional usage rules. Also note that, regardless of whether a double or single quotation mark is used originally, singles always go inside doubles.

On your computer keyboard, the key after the 0 (zero) on the top row is a hyphen. It’s a shorter punctuation mark than a dash. A dash is actually comprised of two hyphens put together and is used completely differently.

Hyphens were previously used to break a word into syllables – and still connect it – when it wouldn’t fit on one line. With computers, that problem is alleviated completely due to automatic spacing of letters. However, there are still hyphenated words in the English language, and more are coming into use as various disciplines progress.

Example – “State-of-the-art” is a hyphenated word that’s been around for while, but “high-speed” and “voice-over,” from the Information Technology field, are fairly new.

You can typically check the spelling of hyphenated words that have been around a long time with a standard spell-checker. From the example, the first hyphenated word will likely be spelled the same way no matter where you check. But hyphenated words that have only recently come into being – like the second two in the example – likely aren’t in them. For that matter, the newer words probably don’t have an actual convention for spelling/punctuation yet! A general rule of thumb is that when two words commonly go together as a noun, they aren’t hyphenated. But when you use those same two words together as an adjective, they have a hyphen between them. (Example – Our connections run at high speed VS. We offer high-speed connections.)

As noted above, dashes are actually two hyphens, side-by-side. Most word processing programs today have a feature that allows you to always link two hyphens so that they form a long dash. Dashes are used for a variety of things, the most common being to replace commas around non-restrictive phrases and clauses and to connect two ideas – or even sentences – together.

Example 1 – The payments – disability and retirement – come from the same Social Security Trust Fund account.

Example 2 – The software provides security from intermediate level hackers – and peace of mind for you!

In example 1, you can see that the text between the dashes is just additional information and not needed to restrict the “kind” of payment being discussed. And example 2 connects two dissimilar ideas. The first part of example 2 is a technical statement, but the writer has chosen to connect the personal statement – almost as an afterthought. The method in the second example helps create variety in sentence structure, and variety is one of the things that helps keep your readers’ interest levels high.

An ellipsis is a series of three periods in a row. In the “old” days, an ellipsis (notice a single one ends in “-is” and the plural ends in “-es”) was only used to say that information was missing. For example, let’s say I wanted to write part of the above sentence in order to discuss it. I might choose not to write out the entire sentence again: “In the sentence above, the section that reads “In the ‘old’ days…” The ellipsis says that in the original, there was more text after the word “days.”

However, the Computer Age has again made inroads into the possible use of the ellipsis. The ellipsis is commonly used…in internet chat rooms and instant messenger programs…to replace a variety of punctuation marks.

Example – Some people now use it virtually the same as the dash…it might replace a comma, a semi-colon, a colon, or even a period.

This practice hasn’t been recognized yet as an “official” writing convention. Most readers see it as the “lazy” writing of someone who doesn’t want to learn correct conventions. But like the dash, the ellipsis – used sparingly – can add variety to your writing.


For a teaching lesson plan for this lesson see:
Business Writing Lesson Plan – Punctuation

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