As a rule, I prefer to make fun of myself rather than make fun of others, but in my previous column I departed from my usual approach. I poked a little fun at people who use dots and dashes as default punctuation rather than avail themselves of the full panoply of punctuation marks available to them — which would require their learning the rules of correct punctuation. Such a bother.

In response, Al wrote saying it was "a fun article," but he was hoping there would be "a follow-up on rules of usage for dots and dashes … maybe that's what you have planned."

Well … uh, actually … no, it wasn't — but what a great idea!!! So here — using dashes and … I called them dots, but what's the other name??? … oh, yes, ellipses!!! (or, in the singular, ellipsis!!!) — I give you three guidelines for using ellipses, followed by five guidelines for using dashes for good grammar and — in some instances — for stylistic effect.


Use ellipses to indicate (1) omitted text in a direct quotation, as in "I told you not to use all those … dots"; (2) a thoughtful or troubled pause, as in "I … I just can't help myself"; and (3) a trailing off thought, as in "If only I knew the difference between a hyphen and a dash …"

Use dashes to indicate a sudden shift in thought or a break in sentence structure. More specifically, use dashes to:

1. Set off an interruption, as when William Strunk and E.B. White wrote, "His first thought on getting out of bed — if he had any thought at all — was to get back in again."

2. Set off a midsentence phrase that contains a series of items separated by commas, as in "Attending to the five elements of effective writing — purpose, organization, support, expression and correctness — will make you a better writer."

3. Mark the end of a long summary, as Joyce Carol Oates did when she wrote, "Our intelligence, our wit, our cleverness, our unique personalities — all are simultaneously 'our own' possessions and the world's."

4. Mark the beginning of a long summary, as in "She has many qualities — qualities such as integrity, candor, commitment and genuine concern for others."

– Anonymous."

You'll find those five rules, as well as an explanation of the difference between dashes and hyphens, by Googling "Wilbers dashes."

If these eight guidelines are more than you care to think about, just remember this: Use ellipses for thoughtful pauses and dashes for dashing effect.

One more helpful resource: Google "Punctuation FAQ" for my answers to seven common punctuation questions, as well as some fun exercises (teachers, note!!!).

Wait, one more thing!!! Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald's advice: "Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke."

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is