Fussing over the odd dot dash and colon when you’re trying to bare your soul may seem at the best pernickety and at the worst cruel. But punctuation can make the difference between a funny one-liner and a meaningless word-puff. It also just makes you a feckload easier to understand. Here are some common punctuation cock-ups to avoid…
Throwing apostrophes around like Wotsits at a sleepover.
Apostrophes – about as fun as wearing underwear three sizes too small, right? WRONG. Apostrophes are excellent, when used in the right way. So, here goes:
You can use an apostrophe to kick out a vowel and smudge two words together. Here are some common ones that people often struggle with:
- you + are = you’re
- it + is = it’s
- do + not = don’t
- should + have = should’ve.
You can also use an apostrophe to point out who stuff belongs to. For instance, “Anne’s hat” shows that the hat belongs to Anne. Maybe think of it as a smudging of “Anne has hat,” if that helps. “Shane’s love of Abba” is like “Shane has love of Abba”.
You can also use a possessive apostrophe after a word that ends in s. So, like, “Saul Bass’ awesome use of modernist design.”
But, for the love of chunk, don’t use an apostrophe when the word is just a plural. “Apples” is fine and dandy. “Apple’s” is wrong, unless you’re talking about something that belongs to Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter.
Using semi colons even though you don’t really know how they work.
I do this all the time. And I mean all the time.
But here is a tentative guide to the whole sticky mess. Use a colon when you’re saying one thing and then quantifying it. Or listing something. For instance, “I bought these things on holiday: sandals, a bikini and a drum.” It is also used to introduce the next part of your sentence. “Here’s the thing: I really like cheese.”
Semi colons are usually where there are two clauses that could work separately, as two different sentences, but they work nicely together. You can often replace a semicolon with a dash or even a full stop. It’s basically all a case of rhythm and pauses.
Using double quotation marks in completely insane situations.
This kind of tomfoolery happens everywhere, from huge chain restaurants that claim to be “open” from 11 to 8 on their signs, to tiny market stalls that sell “staples” for 50p. There is no need to do this. It just makes you sound like you’re taking the piss.
The only time you really need double quotation marks is when you’re relating speech or quotations. You can also use them when you’re citing an example of something, so for instance: don’t use the word “plum” when you mean “greengage.” It will confuse your grocer.
Controversially, you can use double quotation marks if you want something to sound “ironic”, but personally I think that makes you sound like kind of a “fool”.
Also, if you’re quoting a whole sentence, start that quote with a capital letter.
Chucking in dashes with gay abandon.
Firstly, there is a difference between a hyphen and a dash, so make sure you’re using the right one. This is a hyphen: -. This is a dash: –.
You use hyphens to join words into a phrase, like “21-year-old”. You also use them when you use a phrase as an adjective, for example, “It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.” But not if you’re saying, “They did it on the spur of the moment.”
As for dashes – we all love dashes. They’re a bit like commas and semi colons – they give a pause. You can also use them – maybe as a birthday treat – to isolate a phrase within a longer sentence. Like I just did, just then.
Using emoticons. Ever.
No one wants to be that guy. Moreover, no one wants to read what that guy has to say.
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