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Grammar resource: Brackets, dashes & hyphens

Many of these punctuation marks have a specific function in academic writing that you may not have come across before.

Round brackets/parentheses

The official name for round brackets (like these) is parentheses. They are used in pairs around groups of words introducing an extra idea e.g. an explanation or afterthought to be kept separate from the rest of the sentence. A sentence should still make complete sense without the words in parentheses. Extra text that is separated out like this is called parenthetical text.


He always hands in his work on time (he is a well organised student) after carefully checking it.


Sometimes a whole sentence is parenthetical. When this is the case, include your punctuation, specifically the full stop/period within the parentheses.


“The sheer decibel level of the noise around us is not enough to make us cranky, irritable, or aggressive. (It can, however, affect our mental and physical health, which is another matter.)"

 —Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


For citations

Brackets/parentheses are also used a lot in academic writing to separate citations from the rest of the text:  


Storytelling activates the brain’s insular cortex and allows us to experience sensations such as excitement or disgust (Widrich, 2012).


Robinson (2001) suggests that Western culture has an obsession with academic achievement and fails to recognise the worth of creative ability.

Notice how the use changes dependent on the sentence structure. If the author's name is mentioned in the text, only the date is bracketed otherwise both name and date are included. If a citation comes at the end of a sentence, always put it before the full stop/period.

Square brackets and ellipses

Square brackets indicate where you have inserted extra words within a quotation so that it makes sense out of context.

The ellipsis (...) indicates where words are removed from the original quotation. It has space before and after the three dots.


"The true aim of a university is to create [men and women] by education … and by showing them how to use what they have learnt for their own good and for the good of others" (Garbett, 1948:4)



Dashes play a similar role to parentheses in text—although they can be used singly as well as in pairs. When used singly the are used to replace a comma or a semi-colon but give extra emphasis to the separated text. The dashes need to be the longer em-dash (—), not just an en-dash (–) or hyphen (-).



Since 2007, the consensus of the economic establishment—bankers, policymakers, CEOs, stock analysts, pundits—has been catastrophically wrong.

Surprisingly, climate change is still contested within some academic circles—nonsensical given the evidence.


Typing an em-dash

MS word automatically converts some hyphens into both en- and em-dashes. To get an em-dash, you can usually just type two hyphens together and these should automatically change to an em-dash if there is no space either side. If you put spaces either side of a single hyphen you will get an em-dash. In both cases you will need to press the space, a punctuation mark or the enter key to trigger the replacement.

Alternatively, there are direct key combinations to get an em-dash:


Ctrl-Alt with the minus sign (the one on your number pad).


Shift-Option with the hyphen key


When to use an en-dash

En-dashes should only be used to connect things like times, dates and page numbers to indicate a range.



The contracted hours will be 20–30 hours per week.   Please read pages 34–38 by tomorrow.   The building work will begin June–July.


Note If you introduce the range with the word 'from' do not use a dash to indicate the range, replace it with the word 'to'.



Margaret Thatcher was prime minister from 1979 to 1990.


In compound words

Hyphens are used to join two words together to make a compound word:





Note that not all compound words need hyphens (e.g. flowerpot, lipstick).


Two-word adjectives

Hyphens are also used to join two words together to create a single adjective:


She was a well-respected professional.

This is a university-wide policy.


However, do not hyphenate these words if they follow the nouns they modify:


As a professional, she was well respected. 

This policy is university wide.