Posts tagged: punctuation

Sep 12 2016

Writing Tips :: Semicolons and Colons

This is a topic that I am not going to delve into too deeply today, but there are a few simple rules that I want to outline briefly.

A colon (:) draws attention to something and is most often used to set off a list or an example. It basically says “look at this” and it either separates two independent clauses (so you could change it to a period and it would make sense) or sets off a list, as below.

I finished the grocery list yesterday: eggs, milk, and bread are definitely on it!

I learned something new today: hummingbirds are really territorial!

A semicolon (;) is different from a colon. It still draws attention to something, but you shouldn’t use it instead of a colon. Rather, you can use it to delineate items in a list (particularly if one or more of the items uses commas) or use it to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause.

I had several stops to make before I could go home: the toy store for a birthday present for my niece; the shoe store for a pair of sandals and some new sneakers; and the grocery store for eggs, milk, and bread.

I have always loved to read; one sign is that I usually have more than one book on the go at a time!

I could get into more detail about how to know which to use, but this brief explanation is enough for now. Don’t neglect these two wonderful pieces of punctuation; they are often forgotten or used improperly, and it’s truly a shame!

Jun 13 2016

Writing Tips :: Commas

A few years ago I realized that I was a chronic comma-over-user. Since most of the things I edit are written by people who have the opposite problem, I didn’t really notice it until someone else pointed it out to me. Now I check whenever I want to put in a comma. They aren’t always necessary, though there are a few instances where I will always add them.

Commas and lists

Commas are great in lists because they show where each list item ends and begins. I can take a grocery list like this:


and turn it into a sentence like this:

I need eggs, milk, cheese, and macaroni.

Commas and ‘and’

One mistake I see a lot is people putting a comma before the word “and” no matter what. That’s actually incorrect. “And” is a conjunction, so it is often preceded by a comma, but it isn’t always necessary. Also, while I am a fan of the Oxford Comma (the comma that goes before the last item in a list — see my above grocery list for an example), you do have to be judicious about where that final comma really goes.

Let’s take a couple of examples.

I closed the door behind me and checked my pockets to make sure I had the keys.

Sarah wrote her name at the top of her paper, opened the test booklet, and began to answer questions.

Billy wasn’t sure he wanted to go on the airplane because it was so loud, and besides, he didn’t need to go to Florida anyway.

Okay, so the first example doesn’t need a comma before the “and” because the two actions are connected. The second example does because it’s a list of actions. The third example does because “and besides” is an interjection; if you took out “besides” you might not need the comma!

Commas and ‘but’

“But” is also a conjunction, but it almost always has a comma before it (like in this sentence).

The computer started to boot but it hung on the loading screen, as usual.

The cat was purring loudly, but its bristling tail indicated its discomfort with the situation.

Commas for breathing

The most interesting advice for commas that I have ever been given was to put them in where I expect the reader to breathe. That’s not actually how to do it, but it’s an interesting idea and why I’m adding it here! If I did that, I would probably use commas even more rarely. I think if you’re going to do this, you should save it for when you’re writing dialogue.

In reality, the proper use of a comma (aside from marking items in a list) is to indicate the end of a clause. A clause is part of a sentence that has a subject (the noun that the sentence is about) and a predicate (the verb and something about the subject). There are two types: independent and dependent. An independent clause can be its own sentence, but a dependent clause can’t. So a comma (often with a conjunction) is used to connect two clauses. You can connect an independent clause with another independent clause, or you can connect an independent clause with a dependent clause (the dependent clause can go before or after the independent one, but you don’t need a comma if you put the independent clause first). Here are some examples:

Peter drew a tree, and it was green. [Independent clause, Independent clause]

Sally ran home with her new puppy. [Independent clause Dependent clause]

Although the bell rang on time, Faith stayed in her seat to finish her work. [Dependent clause, Independent clause]

Clear as mud, right? Happily I am here to help! If you need help understanding commas in your writing, fill out my contact form and let me know!

May 09 2016

Writing Tips :: Apostrophes

The apostrophe is a great piece of punctuation. It can show possession and it can show when we’ve eliminated letters from words, things like that. So let’s get down to it.


For a single person (or thing), you want to use an apostrophe-s to show possession: “Sally’s shoes were brown.”

If the word ends with an s but is singular, you don’t have to use the apostrophe-s but check with whomever you are writing for because which is correct depends on what has been decided by the higher-ups, assuming they care. (People often don’t care about punctuation. It’s sad but true.)

For a group of people (or things), the apostrophe goes after the s: “The clowns’ shoes were red.”

If the word doesn’t end with an s but it is still plural (like “people”), you use an apostrophe-s: “The people’s voices rose and fell in the train car.”

And just to be confusing, the word “its” (without an apostrophe) is already possessive: “Its food was in the bowl.”

Eliminated Letters

Here’s a list of a few examples of this. I’m sure that as you look around you’ll see where apostrophes have been added in place of other letters.

do not = don’t

continued = cont’d

Saskatoon = S’toon

you will = you’ll

I hope this has been enlightening for you — good luck with your future use of apostrophes!

Mar 21 2016

Word Addiction :: and/or

It’s “and/or” not “and or”; the slash means it could be and but it could be or, and if you leave it out it loses that and just looks ridiculous.

I totally get that this happens because when we’re talking we don’t say the slash, we just say “and or” so people write what they say. But I thought I’d put this out there so people know, at least.

Mar 14 2016

Writing Tips :: Parentheses

Have you ever heard the phrase “parenthetical remarks”? That basically means that the remarks aren’t the meat of the message but could still be important. In writing, we can use parentheses to enclose an interjection, a clarification of some kind, a list, or even an entire sentence or group of sentences. Which you use when, and how you punctuate them, is what we’re going to cover today.

Like I often do, let’s look at each situation using examples. Examples make it easier to understand a concept and how to apply a technique.

First up: interjections. In dialogue we would use em-dashes (—) to set these apart but in prose it makes more sense to use parentheses.

Sally had on a pair of walking boots (they were last year’s fashion but still quite serviceable), grey woollen socks, and a pair of worn denim overalls.

Note that the punctuation that belongs after the word “boots” goes after the closing parenthesis. This is because everything inside the parentheses applies to the boots, and if we take all of that out our sentence is still a perfectly good sentence.

Next up: clarifications. Sometimes these are things like acronyms, and sometimes they are statements.

The staff are all required to obtain First Aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification as soon as possible (i.e., within three months of hire).

Here we get a note that “CPR” stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation as well as clarification that “as soon as possible” actually means “before the probation period is up.” This is important information but is not essential to the overall message of the sentence, so it is in parentheses.

Moving on to lists! Lists can seem tricky at first because they include commas or semicolons between the items, but if you remember the rule I gave for interjections you’ll do fine.

The shelves in the closet held a lot of board games (e.g., Sorry!, Clue, Candyland, Twister), but The Game of LIFE wasn’t there.

See? Easy! The punctuation that goes with “board games” goes on the outside of the parentheses, but you have commas between the names of the board games themselves.

Okay, one more. How do you use parentheses to enclose an entire sentence or group of sentences?

Someday Cathy will learn the truth. (She won’t like it when she does, but she will.)

Just like that! See how the parentheses enclose the entire sentence, including its closing period? That’s because it’s a separate sentence from the one it’s responding to. This is great for asides in prose, because you can give the most important information in a really straightforward manner and then make snarky comments in parentheses afterward. (Not that I ever do that. Really. Okay, maybe a little bit.)

And that is your crash course on using parentheses! I’m sure I missed something, but these rules should stand you in good stead for most of the times you might need to use them. Go forth and make parenthetical remarks!

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