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Better English Punctuation: Dashes and Brackets

Updated: Nov 24

Dashes and brackets characters on computer keyboard.
Where to find the characters on your keyboard

Introduction - Better English punctuation

In this article, I will explain the dash, which is not to be confused with the hyphen which I wrote about in an earlier article.

And, later in the article I will also explain the parenthesis — also known as a bracket. There are several kinds of brackets and I will explain them as well.


Dashes set off information in a sentence that you want to stress, or emphasise.

There are two kinds of dashes. The en dash is approximately the length of the letter n, while the em dash is the length of the letter m.

The shorter en dash (–) is used to mark ranges. The longer em dash (—) is used to separate extra information or mark a break in a sentence.

Em dashes

An example will help explain an em dash.

Tom wanted to say something to his father, but it was too late; the train on which he was travelling left the station — the moment had passed.

En dashes

For an example of an en dash in use, look at the next sentence.

"You can read this article in 23 minutes."

The same key on your keyboard contains another punctuation mark — the underscore.

Underscores are often used to break up long digital file names.

Here is an example: “Image 001_cat eating a fish”.

Parentheses ( )

Parentheses (the plural of parenthesis) are used to ‘bracket’ information that is incidental in the sentence such as a date or an abbreviation. They are used for additional information or an afterthought. Also, parentheses present a plural option for a singular one.

Examples will show the use of parentheses. By the way, another name for this kind of parentheses is ‘round brackets’.

For abbreviations:

The U.S. Congress passed legislation establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a civilian agency responsible for coordinating America’s activities in space, on July 29, 1958.

For dates:

The year in which NASA was established (1958) means that it has been operating for just over sixty years.

For afterthoughts:

You must attend the meeting in Sydney on Monday. (Leave early to avoid the rush hour.)

For plural options:

Remove the bolt(s) as shown.

(This could be one bolt or more than one bolt.)

‘Square brackets’ or ‘box brackets’ [ ]

They are used to make quoted text clearer by showing insertions by the current writer. The text in the square brackets is used to clarify by adding an explanation.

For example:

He said: "I know she [Jill] was responsible."

(The text in the square brackets explains who "she" is.)


She wrote: "Your dress compliments [sic] your hair colour."

(The term "sic" (sic erat scriptum means "Thus it was written." It is used to point out/explain that the original author used "compliment" (instead of "complement").

Square brackets are also used to indicate that a certain section of a quote has been left out.

For example, the Prime Minister is quoted as saying "This policy to help the economy recover […] will be implemented very soon."

‘Braces’ or ‘curly brackets’ { }

‘Curly brackets” or ‘braces’ are not as fashionable these days, but they do appear on your computer keyboard. But just in case you do encounter curly brackets, or need to use them correctly, they are likely indicating a series of equal choices.

For example:

Select your hamburger extras {onion, tomato, cheese, bacon, tomato, lettuce, beetroot, pineapple} and it will be made to your preference.

The only other place you may encounter curly brackets is on forums or when instant messaging where they are used to indicate a hug. Emojis, however have come to replace them. Nevertheless, the way the curly bracket is facing indicates the direction of the hug. A curly bracket that opens to the left is a left hug and a curly bracket that opens to the right is a right hug.

For example:

Starboy2: hey, just thought id let u know im bringing home some flowers and chocolate

({) SweetGirl100: aw….thanks honey…(}) (without the round brackets of course).

Angle brackets < >

Also called chevrons, and useful to know, they frequently appear in mathematics and physics. They also appear in other contexts, although not with any type of frequency. Angle brackets may occur in linguistics.

For example:

The English word /kæt/ is spelled ⟨cat⟩.

Sometimes, although not often, angle brackets are used to indicate a character’s internal thought.

For example:

John gave me a flower to hold and said, "Smell it."

I took a sniff. "It's beautiful." <Ugh! What a terrible stench!>

Angle brackets are used often in comic books to show someone speaking in another language.

Double angle brackets are sometimes used instead of quotation marks. They are also used in digital communication (Messenger or WhatsApp) to indicate a person’s action or status.

For example:

< <waves>>




It is important not to overuse brackets or rely on them too heavily. Some people use brackets in place of commas. Round and square brackets are used more often than the curly and angle types.

I have also explained the use of dashes in this article.

I hope you have found this article interesting and useful. Being able to recognise and apply these punctuation marks is another important step along the path towards becoming a more effective user of English.

You can find other articles that I've written to learn about other punctuation marks to get better English punctuation.

Finally, if you enjoyed this article, please share it on your socials with your friends. It's easy: just copy the URL and post.

© Apex English Tutoring Feb 2021 - updated Nov 2023

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About the Author

Michael Finemore, MA (Research) CQU, TEFL/TESOL Certificate, an experienced English Teacher, is the Owner-Operator of Apex English Tutoring.

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