What Semicolons Are For

An editor once excised the semicolons from my writing with the marginal note “Death to semicolons.” He changed every one of them to a period.

Not every editor is so vehement about this much-maligned mark, but those who are may be provoked by the fact that so many writers don’t know how to use it properly.

Semicolon

This lack of accuracy may come about because some people learn that a comma is a pause and a period is a stop. One could readily deduce that a semicolon is somewhere in between.

Almost, but not quite. Continue reading

How to Use Quotation Marks

On my to-do list was a note to write you a post about the correct use of quotation marks. Then I discovered that Jonathon Owen over at Arrant Pedantry had already done so. His article is useful and thorough, so I’ll send you over there to learn How to Use Quotation Marks. He even has a nifty flow chart.

quotation marks

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I especially like Owen’s comments about scare quotes. Those are the quotes people put around a word to draw attention to it for … well, no good reason, actually, as Owen explains. Whenever you are tempted to put scare quotes around a term, I want you to imagine you are speaking to an audience and when you get to that part of your writing, you make “air quotes” with your “fingers” every time you put “scare quotes” around a term. Continue reading

Two Kinds of Dashes and How to Use Them

One of the finer points of punctuation is the use of dashes. In casual writing, we often use them willy-nilly, but when you are writing nonfiction for publication, take care to use them properly.

Fiction writers only need concern themselves with one kind of dash. They will rarely have use for the other. But nonfiction writers need to understand the differences and when to use them.

punctuation

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The first and most common dash is the em dash—so called because in a proportional font it’s about the same width as the letter M. There’s one in the previous sentence. The em dash is used in nonfiction much as it is in fiction: for an abrupt break that’s not suitable for other punctuation. Continue reading

Using Ellipses Properly in Nonfiction

The rules for ellipses in nonfiction differ slightly from those in fiction. In fiction, ellipses signal a hesitation or trailing off of speech. But in nonfiction, they indicate omissions from quoted material. If you’re writing a memoir or other narrative nonfiction, you may use ellipses the way they’re used in fiction.

When you use an ellipsis to indicate an omission, you must take care not to misrepresent the original text. Using ellipses to get around parts of a quoted work that oppose your argument while leaving the bits that support it is cheating the reader. For similar reasons, don’t use an ellipsis to join sentences from passages that are widely separated in the original.

ellipsis

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Don’t neglect punctuation and usage on your blog

Back in the day, amateur bloggers could often get away with sloppy craft. The novelty of the medium meant readers were very forgiving. Even today, the readers of someone’s personal blog may not care about slips such as using intrical to mean integral. But the more professional your blog is, the more you’re expected to maintain high standards of craft.

Most business people are good writers. They’ve had to be to succeed in school and work. And people who self-identify as writers usually write very strong prose. Paying close attention to the quality of your writing is a must if you’re blogging to build your business or platform. Continue reading

A punctuation primer

Editing for manuscript mechanics involves examining your manuscript closely for minuscule details like these:

Punctuation is properly applied.

The most common punctuation errors I see have to do with commas, which is why I created the Comma Cheat Sheet.

Photo illustration © WavebreakmediaMicro • Fotolia.com

Photo illustration © WavebreakmediaMicro • Fotolia.com

Few people have trouble with periods. They go at the end of sentences. Period errors are usually ones of omission, such as when they’re missing from run-on sentences:

She worked hard all day, there was a lot to do. (Comma should be a period.)

Continue reading

Em Dashes in Dialogue

Last time, we looked at using ellipses in your dialogue. Up next: em dashes.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

using quotation marks

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The em dash—it looks like this—is used to indicate a break of thought or speech. It can be used parenthetically, as in the previous sentence, or singly, for example if a character changes topic mid-sentence.

“The next slide shows the third quarter—no, sorry, that’s the wrong slide.”

It can also be used to show an interruption. Continue reading