Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Punctuation pointers: The em-dash, exclamation point and question mark

January 4, 2017

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Even the best business writers find that punctuation can trip them up. These pointers should help. ("Notebook" image via Pixabay.)
Even the best business writers find that punctuation can trip them up. These pointers should help. ("Notebook" image via Pixabay.)

Finicky punctuation rules can evade us all. Here’s how to master the em-dash, exclamation point and question mark.

Em-dashes

Who doesn’t like dashes as emphasis techniques? Just consider the following guidelines:

• Note that em-dashes are more emphatic than commas. Use a dash instead of a comma when you want to strongly set off an idea.

• Dashes are often used to introduce an abrupt change of thought, while parentheses add information.

Upon firing the company’s non-salaried employees—and cancelling the company picnic—the CEO called a meeting with the board.

Upon firing the company’s non-salaried employees (a group of 500, according to recent records), the CEO called a meeting with the board.

• Unlike parentheses, remove other punctuation around dashes.

• Em-dashes are quite different from en-dashes, which are used to connect items in a series, such as “a Monday-Friday work week.” Think of an en-dash, which is shorter than an em-dash, as a substitute for “to.”

Exclamation points

Most style guidelines within the news industry recommend avoiding the exclamation point or severely limiting its use. Most editors feel that the exclamation mark risks your work reading like a marketing brochure vs. an unbiased piece of business news writing.

If you can’t avoid placing the mark within your writing, adhere to the following Associated Press guidelines:

• Place the mark inside quotation marks when it is part of a quote. “How amazing!” the board member exclaimed.

• Place a mark outside the quotation marks when it is not a quote. The teacher assigned us 200 pages of “The AP Stylebook”!

• Do not insert a comma or a period after the exclamation mark. “Stop!” the officer shouted to the bank robber.

Question marks

You would think that such a basic piece of punctation would be confusion-free. Not always.

• Use a question mark for an inserted/interrupting (also known as an interpolated) question. They said—am I understanding this properly?—to shut the facility down.

• Don’t use a question mark at the end of an indirect question. He asked who ordered the shut-down of the facility.

• Use a question mark and not a comma when attributing a quotation. “Why did the companies merge?” she asked.

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