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  • Raghav Sand

English Essentials: Apostrophe, Hyphen and Dash

Previously, in the fourth installment of English Essentials, we got an overview about Italics and Boldface. This week its the turn of Apostrophe, Hyphen and Dash. The significance of punctuation is shared below for a quick recap. This fifth and final installment shall conclude our English Essential series.


Significance of Punctuation


Punctuation is an aspect of written English. We cannot use or not use a comma or semicolon because we like it or do not feel like using it. Perhaps people use commas merely because they might pause there in speech. Improper punctuation makes it difficult for the reader and ultimately the essence of message may get lost. In spoken English, we can use all sorts of tricks to make our meaning clear. Even if everything fails, we have the option of repeating what we have said. Through these series of articles, readers will be given a brief outline of common punctuation, and hopefully we can together get better at using them in our everyday written communication.


The Apostrophe


The apostrophe (‘) is a problematic punctuation mark, and probably also the least useful. The confusion with respect to its usage is such that a number of writers have advocated eliminating it altogether. There is a lot of merit to this demand, but until apostrophe is not abolished we should know the basics of its applicability. The apostrophe can be divided into two heads – contractions and possessives.


Contractions – that is, shortened forms of words from which one or more letters have been omitted. Here are some of the examples:

it’s – it is or it has we’ll – we will or we shall they’ve – they have aren’t – are not can’t – can not


As you would have noticed that each time the apostrophe appears precisely in the position of the omitted letters. It is not incorrect to use contractions in formal writing, but the practice should be adopted on rare instances.


An apostrophe is used in a possessive form, like India’s legacy, and this is the use of apostrophe that causes most trouble. The basic rule is simple enough: a possessive form is spelled with ‘s at the end. There are three types of exceptions.


First, a plural form which already ends in s takes only a following apostrophe: (1) the players’ excitement; (2) two weeks’ work. Second, a name ending in s takes an apostrophe if the possessive form is not pronounced with an extra s. Third and final exception is pronouns. Consider the following examples: (1) The bull lowered its head. (2) Which seat are ours?


The Hyphen and the Dash


The hyphen (-) is the small bar found on every keyboard. It has several related uses; in every case, it is used to show that what it is attached to does not make up a complete word by itself. Most commonly, a hyphen is used to indicate that a long word has been broken off at the end of a line, e.g. inconse-quential (more commonly used without the hyphen). If possible then such splitting should be avoided whenever possible. If you are in doubt, consult a good dictionary. The Dash is noticeably longer than a hyphen. It has only one major use: a pair of dashes separates a strong interruption from the rest of the sentence.


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