Everyday Proofreading and Punctuation Marks: Their Meaning and How They Are Used

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2023-08-15

Pretty much everyone uses punctuation marks in their day-to-day life, whether it’s in texts, emails, professional communications, business writing, letters, birthday cards, notes…the list goes on and on! Periods, commas, question marks, exclamation points—these marks are familiar, and their usage is likely firmly cemented in your mind.

However, for some less-common punctuation marks/word treatments that perhaps don’t get used quite as often, it can become easy to mix them up and use them incorrectly. Do we use square brackets or parentheses for an interjection in quoted material? Do we add italics to the name of a ship, or the name of a building? So, let’s examine a few of these concepts that are a bit easier to confuse.


Square brackets vs. Parentheses

Square brackets are most often used to add new text to original text. Most often you will see this addition within direct quotations. The insertion is intended to clarify meaning or explain a detail. For example, “At the press conference yesterday, Mayor Tory said, ‘A hearty congratulations to our amazing baseball team [the Blue Jays] on their success this season!”

Square brackets can also be used in quoted material if you, as the writer, need to point out an error in the original quote, such as a spelling mistake. To do this, you enclose the word “sic” in the square brackets directly following the error. For example, “As historian John Smith wrote, ‘The sinking of the Titanicc [sic] is one of the greatest losses of life recorded.’”

A less-common use for square brackets is if you need to use brackets within parentheses, an issue that can crop up in academic writing. For example, say you need to include a reference for material that is already enclosed in brackets. The resulting text might look something like this: “…this usage is more common in academic writing (though some critics, such as Sanderson [2021], have argued for its use elsewhere).”

Parentheses, on the other hand, are used to separate information that may not be essential to the meaning of the sentence. It is a way to add information without breaking your train of thought. For example, “The City of Toronto (located on the shores of Lake Ontario) is home to the Blue Jays.”

You can also use parenthetical remarks to express an opinion. For example, “The Blue Jays have won three games in a row (if you can believe it!) and are headed to the play-offs!”


Em dash vs. En dash

So, you know about hyphens—they are used to combine words (such as well-known or ill-advised). But what about dashes? Well, there are two types: the em dash, and the en dash. The em dash (—) is longer, and is used to separate information or mark a break in a sentence—kind of like this!

The en dash (–) is used to mark ranges; for example, 1985–1990. However, some people also use the en dash as an em dash, to denote a break in a sentence. In these cases, a space should be added on either side of the dash. This usage is more common in British English.

A hyphen should never be used in place of a dash!


Italic style vs. Roman style

Italics and italicize come from the Latin word for "Italian," italicus. This print style was named in honour of the Italian printer credited as the first to use it. Italics are used most commonly to indicate the title of standalone works, such as books, feature films, or magazines. Italics are also used for titles of albums, such as The Beatles’ album Help! or Adele’s 21. However, individual songs from an album are in roman and in quotation marks, such as “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” As well, television shows are in italics, such as The Walking Dead, while episodes are in roman and in quotation marks, as in “Promises Broken.”

Italics can be used for emphasis in writing, when referring to the name of ships such as the RMS Titanic (but note that RMS is in roman), when a word is borrowed from another language, as in italicus, and when naming the scientific Latin names of plants and species, such as Oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus (the common domestic rabbit).

“Roman style” means regular (not italic) type. A common error we often see in writing is the use of italics instead of roman when referring to proper names. For example, when referring to the name of a building (the CN Tower), the title of a course (Introduction to Typography), the name of a school (the Equinox Alternative School), and the name of a place (Canada’s Wonderland). These names take roman, not italic.

And lastly, we want to examine a couple of commonly mixed-up proofreading marks!


Stet vs. Delete vs. Stat!

While many proofreading marks have fallen into disuse with the advent of on-screen proofing, “stet” is one that some editors still use today, even in on-screen applications. “Stet” means (from the original Latin) “let it stand” and is used as an instruction to ignore a correction or alteration that was made. There’s no symbol for stet, you just write “stet” in the margin, and circle it! Stet is easy to use in on-screen proofing, as you can highlight the edit that was made and then add a comment with “stet” in it—to stand as a record that an edit was made, but that it should not be implemented.

The deletion mark (often what the “stet” is telling you to ignore) is basically a squiggle, as long as it needs to be to run through the word or words that are to be deleted, with a little loop on the end. In this image, you can see that the line runs the length of the entire word (“can”) to show that it should be deleted, with the loop on the end.

“Stat!” isn’t a proofreading mark at all—it’s a shorthand term you’ve likely heard in medical shows (it comes from the Latin “statim,” meaning “immediately”). But, as an editor, it’s good to know what these common terms are—for general knowledge, and to apply to the editing process as well!

So, the next time you find yourself needing square brackets, referring to a song title, or typing out a numerical range, we hope you’ll recall these tips and feel confident that you know exactly how to handle things!



For more on the interesting history of proofreading marks, check out our recent blog “A Brief History of the Pilcrow: A Worldly Mark on Proofreading.”



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