Do Helpful Punctuation Rules Evade You?

Who goes to punctuate their writing prettily only to find you can’t remember the rule? You’re not alone— so many rules exist! And yet in business writing, we must remain concise and clear lest we lose our easily distracted (often bombarded) reader. Read on for the first in a series on finicky punctuation rules we should try remembering (and incorporating) in our writing.

Punctuate Around Parentheses

If we keep in mind our sentence length should average around 20 words (to best retain our reader(s), parentheses provide a great tool for brevity and for de-emphasis. But how to punctuate around them? Remember these short rules for success:

  • If you insert a complete idea/sentence within the parentheses, punctuate inside.
  • If you insert a fragment, then punctuate outside the parentheses.

A few examples follow:

  • To best achieve our sustainability goals, we must get our suppliers on board with reducing excessive packaging (and quickly, too)!
  • Our sustainability officer wants to see 50% more women and minorities on our board by 2019. (We see this step as essential to best serve our customers.)
  • How can we call ourselves a sustainable company when our workers routinely work 80-hour weeks without paid overtime (really)?

Differentiate Between Hyphens, En-Dashes, and Em-Dashes

When we want to provide emphasis, break up lists, or set off related ideas, hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes feel hugely satisfying and offer great relief. But when to use which item and how to remember which does what?

Consider this short summary I borrowed from the Chicago Manual of Style. 

  • Use hyphens to hyphenate compound modifiers (such as long-term benefits, 8-year-old boy etc.)
  • Use en dashes for sports scores and for things related in distance. For instance, pages  1 – 8 and September – December issues. En dashes also provide a prefix to open compounds such as pre – war time.
  • Use em dashes for off-setting/separating related ideas within a sentence. For example, The CEO would love a new room—a beautiful, spacious one—for the company’s art collection.

I tend to see the em dash more in business writing; however, really, I see all types. See this delightful video from the New Yorker for more info on hyphens and dashes.

Use the Semicolon

Few communicators I coach feel comfortable with the semicolon. But I personally try to use semicolons to break up related ideas and lists (and thereby help our reader focus). Consider the following short rules on this often under-used (and overlooked) device:

Semicolons connect two independent clauses. This example illustrates:

  • The rising cost of machinery and supplies discourages many from pursuing farming; farmers can’t afford the items, and they give up (or make do with less).

Semicolons help to separate list items already using commas. Consider these examples:

  • I’ve worked in Tokyo, Japan; San Francisco, California; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Chandler, Arizona; and now Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
  • The color schemes for the new boardroom include: tan with red accent wall; grey with turquoise accent wall; and sea green with dark brown.



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