Forums: User Submission Support: Submission Tips - Column #7 - Apostrophes, Hyphens and Quotation Marks, Oh My!

  • Avatar of TVcom_Moderator


    [1]Apr 20, 2007
    • member since: 07/31/05
    • level: 29
    • rank: Volgar the Enforcer
    • posts: 956

    Apostrophes are used for two main reasons: They replace dropped letters in contractions, and they show possession. Common dropped-letter contractions include don't, won't, can't, shouldn't, couldn't, wouldn't, isn't, it's, and they're.

    An apostrophe plus s shows possession or ownership:

    Fred's car
    the bird's nest
    the school's afterschool program

    (The rules about adding an apostrophe to a singular noun that ends in s are unfortunately rather complex and different guides list different criteria. Use a dictionary or on-line reference if you're unsure.)

    For plural nouns that already end in s, just add an apostrophe to show possession.

    the birds' nests
    the players' cleats
    the lions' dens

    If the "owner noun" is plural but does not end in s, add an apostrophe and an s.

    the children's library
    the women's discussion club
    the mice's maze

    References to decades do not need apostrophes unless they are being used to show possession.

    Bad: He was a big star in the 80's.
    Good: He was a big star in the 80s.
    Good: He was the 80's biggest star. (possessive)


    This is another area where we see a lot of missing punctuation. Use hyphens to create compound words or attach some prefixes. The best way to find out if words need a hyphen is to look the term up in a dictionary. However, there are a few general rules you can use.

    1) Compound modifiers that precede a noun are hyphenated. If the words follow the noun, they are not hyphenated.

    The third-grade students were born in the twentieth century.
    Students in the third grade were born in the twentieth century.

    The ten-mile jog really tired us out.
    We were really tired after a jog of ten miles.

    2) Compound modifiers that include -ly adverbs are NOT hyphenated.

    It was a poorly lit dungeon.
    The carefully prepared luncheon was a huge success.

    3) Some numbers require hyphens when they are spelled out.

    The bill passed by a three-fourths majority.
    Five thousand, three hundred, and forty-two dollars of his earnings went into his checking account.

    4) Some words require a hyphen to attach a prefix.


    5) Some words require a hyphen to make the meaning clear.

    Bad: There are two quart jars of jam in the refrigerator. (Are there two jars of jam with one quart each, or are there an unspecified number of jars that each contain two quarts of salsa?)

    Good: There are two one-quart jars of jam in the refrigerator.

    Quotation Marks

    It's important to note that for Episode and Star Quotes, never use overall quotation marks to surround the quote. uses a script-type format so overall quotation marks for a quotation are not necessary in these instances. If you're using quotation marks as part of a quotation, standard American usage is to use the " quotation marks.

    First, use quotation marks to show when someone is speaking. Place quotation marks around the exact words someone has said. In American usage, periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. Colons and semicolons always go outside. Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they refer only to the material inside the quotation marks.

    Good: He asked, "Where were you on the night of the theft?"
    Good: Who said, "Shut the window"?
    Good: Who asked, "Where were you on the night of the theft"?
    (In the last example, both the material inside the quote marks and the sentence as a whole are questions. Since you don't want to use two question marks, the question mark goes outside to indicate that the whole sentence is a question.)

    Second, you can use quotation marks for titles, particularly for works that are part of a larger body of material, such as songs on an album or short stories in an anthology.

    Quotation marks should also be used to indicate a word used in a special or ironic sense, to mark a word definition, and or to indicate that a word is being referred to as a word. In all cases, the same rules for placing punctuation apply.

    Hurley "won" the 2006 state lottery, even though it brought him bad luck.

    The Latin phrase "deus ex machina" is often translated as "god in the machine."

    Every time he finished a meal, he said "amen."


    While a hyphen is inserted into a single word, dashes separate words. There are two types of dashes, an en-dash and an em-dash. The minus sign, or hyphen, can be used as an en-dash. En-dashes represent a range or relationship.

    The Mets won 10-4.

    The Shamrock flew the London-to-New York route.

    The Wonder Years (2000-2004)

    Quinn Mallory perfected the Einstein-Rosenberg bridge.

    An em-dash dash is technically longer than a hyphen, but many keyboards do not have a readily available symbol to represent that. In American usage, two minus signs or hyphens are put together, with no spacing on either side. Em-dashes represent a break in thought, or possibly an open range, and are used to separate out parenthetical elements that contain punctuation.

    The Borg destroyed 63 planets--21 a year over three years.

    The Robinson family--John, Maureen, Will, Penny, and Judy--took off into space.

    Space--the final frontier.

    Some sources recommend using a hyphen with a space on either side in lieu of the two-hyphen structure. Also, some word processing packages like MS Word automatically convert two dashes into a em-dash character.


    Next Time: Numbers and You


    Previous columns:

    Write Like You Talk
    Sourcing Your Material
    Know Your Capitals!
    A Matter of Timing
    Soundalikes and You
    Periods and Commas and Colons, Oh My!
    Edited on 04/20/2007 10:05pm
    Edited 4 total times.
    You must be registered and logged in to post a message.