How to Use Semicolons

enotes semicolon blog

This is part three in our original grammar series.

Semicolons, or, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing,” have been given a bad name. You and Kurt may avoid them if you choose. If, however, you’ll open your hearts to the tiny mutants, I think you’ll find they’re really rather “useful little chaps”—in the words of Abraham Lincoln.

Think you know how to use a semicolon? Take this test and find out. Choose the correctly punctuated sentence. Continue Reading ›

How to Use Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes

blog header hyphens

This is part two in our original grammar series.

It turns out the little horizontal lines you’ve been sticking between words when you weren’t sure what sort of punctuation should go there are actually different lengths for a reason.

Go figure.

Which of the following should fill the blank?

1. The confident student begins the well_proofed punctuation test with no fear.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 12.05.47 PM Continue Reading ›

How to Use Commas

comma enotes blog

This is part one in our original grammar series.

Today, we discuss the comma. It has rules attached to it that are easy to forget, and often hard to understand.

Which of these sentences is correctly punctuated?

comma 1A) Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” describes the crazy narrator’s murder of the old man he lives with.
B) Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is as enjoyable as it is educational.
C) Herman Melville’s novel, Moby-Dick, is as enjoyable as it is educational. Continue Reading ›

8 Punctuation Marks You Never Knew You Needed

Sometimes an ellipsis just isn’t enough. Sometimes you need… a superellipsis. As we increasingly communicate with each other through the written word, via texts, comments, and online chats, does anyone besides me feel that our choice of punctuation marks is sorely lacking? Well, I suppose College Humor does, since they’ve given us these suggestions for 8 new marks the English language direly needs. Now let’s get working on getting them all passed, because I don’t think Facebook can handle any more complaints from my end about enabling italics. No shame.

*This almost never happens.

Continue Reading ›

How to Mark National Punctuation Day

Attention, grammarphiles: today is National Punctuation Day!

Commemorated every September 24th, National Punctuation Day is the only holiday in existence to celebrate the wonderful, squiggly world of punctuation marks. In a world where punctuation is rapidly in decline, thanks to texting and trendy writers (ahem, ee cummings and James Frey), this day serves to remind us that “a semicolon is not a surgical procedure,” nor is an ellipsis the moment “when the moon moves in front of the sun.”

Wondering how you can mark this happy day? Unfortunately, NPD isn’t a public holiday (yet). However, there are a few of ways to show your appreciation for all things punctuation-y.

The organizers behind National Punctuation Day hold an annual competition. This year, in honor of the 2012 presidential election, they ask their constituents to elect one punctuation mark as president:

The rules: Write one paragraph with a maximum of three sentences using the following 13 punctuation marks to explain which should be “presidential,” and why: apostrophe, brackets, colon, comma, dash, ellipsis, exclamation point, hyphen, parentheses, period, question mark, quotation mark, and semicolon. You may use a punctuation mark more than once, and there is no word limit. Multiple entries are permitted.

So much for my dark horse vote for the interpunct. Its uses are gravely underrated, if you ask me. Cast your ballot for one of the other hopefuls by visiting the National Punctuation Day website and submitting your thoughts.

The New Yorker‘s Questioningly column is also partnering with NPD for its latest competition. In its post “Punctuation Nation,” Questioningly asks its readers to devise a brand new punctuation mark. The constraints are that it must be made from a combination of two already existing punctuation marks, like the interrobang, for instance (?! or sometimes ‽). The column suggests,

maybe there should be a ,? mark, which indicates slowness and confusion, or a /\, which indicates disingenuous differentiation between two otherwise similar elements. (What?!) Anyway, you get it.

To enter, tweet your suggestion, followed by the hashtag #tnyquestion. You can view all of the current submissions to the contest here.

And if both of those competitions fail you, what else is there to do but sulk at home and bake food in the shape of punctuation marks, right? Yup, National Punctuation Day has a recipe for that.

Bonus Fun:

Haven’t had your fill yet? What a punc you are. This puzzle should set you straight…

Insert the proper punctuation in this sentence necessary to make it correct:

James while John had had had had had had had had had had had a better effect on the teacher

Got it yet? Check your answer here. (No peeking!)

For Students: eNotes’ Intern Offers Writing Tips

5 Writing Habits to Ditch Now

Our fabulous and world-worn eNotes intern returns to share cautionary tales from the battlefield of her college experience. Okay, so really she just graduated from UCLA and is dead smart, but that just means you should pay attention to what she says even more.

This time, she covers the five habits most detrimental to writing well. Follow her sound advice, or fear the wrath of the red marker…

Need more writing help? We have plenty of support in our Grammar and Writing topics waiting to answer your questions!

1. Using the “Synonym” function in Word as a crutch

When you realize that you’re overusing a word, it gets really tempting to simply switch it out with another, helpfully recommended by Word itself. This can be a great tool to use, as it may help to point you in a new direction. However, blindly trusting Word’s thesaurus can also be treacherous. Often, the recommendations it gives are only similar to the word you desire.

The difference between two so-called synonyms can be marked. Take for instance a word I used earlier: “treacherous.” Treacherous, as defined by, means “characterized by faithlessness or readiness to betray trust, traitorous,” but it also connotes “deceptive, untrustworthy, or unreliable” as well as “dangerous, hazardous.” This word was specifically chosen because it encompassed all of those definitions. However, Word suggests that it be substituted with “unfaithful,” “disloyal,” and “deceitful.” While it is true that all of those words are related to “treacherous,” none of them also add the element of danger that the original word does.

By blindly swapping one word for another without taking the time to consider what it means, you may lose an important element of what you are trying to convey. This can have a drastic effect on your writing, and it also tells your audience that you don’t know what a word means. Rule of thumb: double-check any suggestions Word gives you, just to make sure that it’s an appropriate substitution.

2. Passive voice

I’ll admit it: I have problems myself with passive voice. Even as I wrote that last sentence, I had to stop myself from saying “passive voice is something I have problems with.” In a nutshell, passive voice occurs when you make the receiver of an action the subject of a sentence. Here’s an example: “The bread was baked by Harry,” versus “Harry baked the bread.” Arguments against passive voice say that it makes your writing indirect and impersonal, which is never desirable. That is not to say that passive voice is never appropriate – it can be used to place emphasis on the receiver over the agent of an action, as well as to deny responsibility of an action entirely (the good old governmental favorite: “Mistakes were made.”) But make sure that passive voice is a conscious stylistic choice, and not simply the result of a lack of attention to detail.

3. Wordiness

This often goes hand-in-hand with passive voice. Wordiness makes your writing seem awkward and unfocused. Depending on the context, it can also imply that you are scrambling to meet the required word count. Keep in mind that when your teacher or professor assigns an essay, they (or their TAs) will end up reading anywhere from twenty to a hundred papers over a period of just a few days. Wordiness disrupts the flow of your paper, and makes it harder to read and understand. The more direct your writing is, the more likely it will stand out amongst all of the other confusing, imprecise ideas in the pile. Keeping it short, simple, and direct will allow your audience to focus on your ideas rather than the writing itself.

4. Quotation abuse

This goes for almost any type of writing, whether it’s for English, history, or even a science paper: block quotes should be used with extreme caution. They wouldn’t exist if they weren’t entirely unnecessary, but for the most part your six-page paper on 1984 should not require quotes longer than two lines. Relying too heavily on the original work shows a lack of your own unique ideas. It also has the unfortunate side effect of making your writing boring. If your teacher only wanted to read George Orwell’s work, they wouldn’t have assigned the paper in the first place. The general rule of thumb is: for every line of quotation, you should have twice as much analysis. Only quote the parts of the work that directly support the ideas you are trying to convey.

That said, make sure you are quoting enough of the original work as well. Your claims need evidence to support them, because it shows that you are not pulling them out of thin air. You need to strike that balance between too much and too little, because failure to do so weakens your argument considerably.

5. A semicolon for a semicolon’s sake

The semicolon is a tricky beast. A lot of people aren’t entirely sure what its function is, but use it regardless because they feel that a paper needs a semicolon to take it to the next level. If you aren’t sure what the function of a semicolon is, don’t attempt to use one. Your writing will not magically become better with the introduction of a semicolon, and the misuse of it will be a red flag in the middle of your work that screams that you don’t know what you’re doing.

If you still really want to use a semicolon, here’s the cases in which a semicolon is appropriate:

  • Separating items in a list that use internal punctuation. Here’s an example:

Several people came to the party: Anna, a friend of Steven; Joel, my brother’s coworker; and Madison, the chairman’s daughter.

  • Separating two independent clauses that are closely related without the use of a coordinating conjunction.

My computer is acting up; I think I need to take it in to be looked at.

  • Separating two independent clauses that are linked by a transitional phrase.

I wish I could do something for you; unfortunately, it is out of my hands at this point.

Except for the first case, the most important thing to remember about a semicolon is that each part before and after this punctuation should be able to serve as a complete sentence on its own.

If you have any doubt over whether you are using a semicolon properly, just abandon it. Oftentimes it can be replaced by a period without any impact on your writing. It is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to semicolons.