Language & Grammar


Use of @ symbol


Avoid using the @ symbol or sign, also known as the “at sign”, except in email addresses—to separate the user’s name from their domain name—and in some social media applications.

  • Example:


The @ symbol in Twitter is combined with a person or organization’s username and is included in tweets to tag the user or send them a message. When the @ is before a username, it is automatically linked to the user's profile page.

  • Example: @SFUBeedie student @JaneDoe named HSBC Woman Leader of Tomorrow at the @enactus_canada national competition.


The @ symbol was originally used as an abbreviation for "at the rate of" in accounting. But it is increasingly misused as shorthand for “at” in sentences.

  • Correct: 10 tickets @ $3.50 = $35  
  • Incorrect: The students will meet @ the gym @ 5 p.m.


Use only for business and other entities that include it as part of the formal name (SFU’s Communications & Marketing, AT&T, Grand & Toy).

Do not use an ampersand instead of “and” except in graphs, charts and printed figures or text arranged in columns on a page. (In select marketing materials, the ampersand can sometimes be used as a graphic element.)


Do not use an apostrophe to form the plural of an acronym.

Example: URLs, not URL's

For regular nouns that do not end in s, the general rule is to add an ’s to the singular to denote possession and an apostrophe only after the to the plural.


  • the dog’s tail (singular)
  • the dogs’ tails (plural)

For singular common nouns ending in s or z, add an ’sexcept when the next word begins with s.


  • the campus’s bus stop (plural: campuses’ bus stops)
  • the campus’ stadium (plural: campuses’ stadiums)

For proper nouns ending in an s follow CP Style and add only an apostrophe to the plural form.


  • Zeballos’ history
  • Socrates’ plays
  • Martinez’ family is coming
  • the Martinezes’ house is small
  • Lewis’ house is brown
  • the Lewises’ and the Martinezes’ houses are old
  • Gulf Islands’ representative
  • Gulf Islands’ structures

Singular proper names ending in x or z: Add an ’s


  • Comox’s airport
  • Agassiz’s population

Most possessive pronouns do not use apostrophes.


  • hers, not her’s
  • its, not it’s
  • theirs, not their’s or theirs’

Plurals of letters and numbers: For nouns formed from single or multiple capital letters and single or multiple numbers form the plural by adding s alone (the 1960s, IUDs, MBAs,). The plural of single lowercase letters is formed with an apostrophe and s (watch your p’s and q’s).

Bulleted and numbered lists

Lists can begin with capitals and end with periods, or not, as long as you are consistent throughout the body of your text. 

Keep the elements in a vertical list parallel. If you don’t have a verb in the introductory phrase, you should have one beginning each of the listed elements.

Example: Vertical lists let you:

  • Show a set of terms, choices or statements clearly
  • Avert reader fatigue or confusion from a long list in a sentence
  • Escape repetition by using one opening phrase with several clause items

If your lead-in statement is a whole sentence, use a colon at the end of the sentence to introduce the list. The items can also be listed as sentences.


  • SFU supports the local economy in at least three major ways:
  • It spends millions of dollars on goods and services in the community.
  • It employs almost 6,000 people.
  • It pays millions in taxes to local governments.

Brackets (parentheses):

Use brackets (parentheses):

  • to include material that you want to de-emphasize but include nevertheless
  • when other punctuation won’t do the job
  • to enclose a nickname within a name
  • to number or letter a series within a sentence
  • to enclose political or other affiliations
  • to enclose equivalents and translations


  • SFU President Andrew Petter was dean of the University of Victoria’s law faculty from 2001-08 (the first year as acting dean).
  • The Moose Jaw (Sask.) Times-Herald
  • William (“Bible Bill”) Aberhart
  • The union pressed for (a) more pay, (b) a shorter work week and (c) better pensions.
  • Senator Nancy Greene Raine (PC—B.C.)
  • “We can expect two more inches (five centimetres) of rain.”


Omit the last comma before “and”—known as the serial (or Oxford) comma—in a list of three or more items.

Example: Students must take history, economics and English.

But use the last comma in a series of items if it prevents confusion.

Example: I dedicate this book to my parents, Alice, and God.

Dashes, en dash, em dash and hyphenation

Although they are frequently overused, en and em dashes have numerous applications. Common word processing software applications apply a space before and after an em dash.


An en dash is about the width of an N, slightly longer than a hyphen. It is normally used in place of the word “to” when indicating a date, time or number range. It can also be used to combine open compounds.


  • 8 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
  • February–March
  • B.C.–Alberta border
  • high school–university conference


An em dash is the width of an M. Em dashes can replace commas, semicolons, colons and brackets to indicate additional emphasis, a break or a sudden change of thought. Use without spaces surrounding it.


  • SFU’s Aboriginal EMBA—Canada’s first—is an example of how SFU is engaging Aboriginal communities.
  • She takes three courses—English, math and chemistry.


Hyphens are commonly used to join compound modifiers—two or more words serving as a single adjective modifying a noun—to avoid ambiguity.

Examples: used-car dealer, small-business tax, big-car lover

Don’t use a hyphen with compound modifiers when the meaning is clear because of common usage.

Examples: acid rain threat, sales tax increase, savings bank deposit

Don’t use a hyphen with adverbs ending in -ly. The -ly alerts readers that the next word is being modified.

Examples: brightly coloured room, eagerly awaited speech

Use hyphens:

  • to indicate joint titles and conflicting or repetitive elements
  • to avoid doubling a vowel, tripling a consonant or duplicating a prefix
  • with ex-, self-, all-, post- and -elect. Exception: postgraduate, postdoctoral


  • secretary-treasurer, writer-editor
  • re-emerge, anti-intellectual, doll-like
  • ex-husband, self-contained, all-American, president-elect

Quotation marks

In most cases, use double quotation marks except for headlines and quotes within a quote.

All punctuation marks except colons and semicolons are positioned within quotation marks. Exception: when the last word in a sentence appears in quotation marks, the punctuation falls outside.

Use quotation marks to enclose direct quotations, indicate words used ironically and highlight unfamiliar terms on first reference.


  • “It wasn’t the players’ fault,” said the coach, of the “friendly” soccer game that ended with two players being “red carded” in the last half.
  • “These red cards seemed like the referee’s attempt to make up for his own shortcomings. It was like he was thinking ‘I’ll get you two for the penalties I missed in the first half’.”

Do not use quotation marks to enclose sayings or headlines or to format question-and-answer text

Use quotation marks for:

  • Titles of academic papers, short poems, articles, individual chapters and short stories
  • Symposiia and conference lectures and paper titles
  • Dissertation and thesis titles
  • Title given to a conference (e.g., “The State of Canadian Education”). The complete official name of a conference, such as the annual Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada meeting, is simply capitalized, with no italics or quotation marks. (The words "meeting" and "annual" aren’t capitalized because they aren’t part of the title.)
  • Songs, other short musical compositions, radio and television shows (or single episodes of continuing series)


The colon is used to mark a break in grammatical construction to explain, expand, enumerate or elaborate. It emphasizes the content relation between the separated elements.

The colon is commonly used to introduce a series or list or series. Lowercase the first word after a colon in a sentence unless that word is the start of a complete sentence or quotation or is a proper noun.

A colon should not separate the main elements of a sentence—such as a verb and its direct object—even if that object is a vertical list.


Semicolons mark a more important break in the sentence than commas.


  • separate two parts of a compound sentence that are related but not connected by conjunctions such as “and”, “but” or “for”
  • separate items in a series that are long and complicated or entail internal punctuation.


SFU invited presidents from several universities: Peter MacKinnon, University of Saskatchewan; Mamdouh Shoukri, York University; John McKendry, Kwantlen Polytechnic University; and David Turpin, University of Victoria.

To determine if a semicolon is suitable in a compound sentence, try substituting a period in its place and see if each part can stand alone, with a verb and subject:

Example: We were running late; the plane was due in 20 minutes.