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Better English Punctuation: Dashes and Brackets

Updated: Feb 21

closeup of computer keyboard showing dashes and brackets keys

Introduction - Better English punctuation

In this article, I will explain the punctuation mark, the dash.

Later in this article I will also explain the parenthesis.

It's 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'

The en dash is approximately the length of the letter 'n'.

Use the shorter 'en dash' (–) to mark ranges.

Here is an example of an en dash in use:

"You can read this article in 2–3 minutes."

The 'em dash'

The em dash is the length of the letter m.

Use the longer 'em dash' (—) to separate extra information or to mark a break in a sentence.

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.

The Underscore

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 (  )

Use parentheses to ‘bracket’ information that is incidental in a sentence. 'Parentheses' is the plural of 'parenthesis'.

Other incidental information includes:

 'a date' or 'an abbreviation'.

Use a parenthesis for extra information or an afterthought.

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

For dates:

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

For abbreviations:

The U.S. set up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on July 29, 1958.

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’ [  ]

Use these kinds of brackets to make quoted text clearer.

For example:

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

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

Use the text in the square brackets to clarify by adding an explanation.


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 that the original author used "compliment" (instead of "complement", the correct spelling.).

Square brackets are also used to show that a certain section of a quote has been omitted.

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.

If you do need to use curly brackets, they are likely indicating a series of equal choices.

For example:

Select your hamburger extras {onion, tomato, cheese, bacon, tomato, lettuce, beetroot, pineapple}.

And we will make your hamburger to your preference.

The only other place you may encounter curly brackets is on forums.

Or instant messaging where they (used to?) indicate a hug.

Emojis have come to replace them.

It is interesting to note that 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 Starboy2…}

Angle brackets < >

These are also called 'chevrons'.

Useful to know, they usually 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, 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 often appear in comic books. They show someone speaking in another language.

Double angle brackets are sometimes used instead of quotation marks.

They are/were also used in digital communication (Messenger or WhatsApp). to state a person’s action or status.

For example:

< <waves>>



Now, emojis have replaced them.


In this article, I have explained the use of dashes and the various kinds of brackets.

Dashes are useful punctuation marks, used often.

It is important not to overuse brackets or rely on them too much.

Some people use brackets in place of commas.

Round and square brackets are more often used than the curly and angle types.

I hope you have found this article interesting and useful.

Using these punctuation marks help you become a more effective writer of English.

Further Reading

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

© Apex English Tutoring Feb 2021 - updated January 2024

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About Me

Hello and welcome!

My name is Michael Finemore and I am the owner-operator of Apex English Tutoring.

As an experienced English Teacher, I'm passionate about helping people turn their 'poor' English into great English, with easy and effective ways to practice.

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