Over the past few days we’ve been looking closely at some frequent writing mistakes writers make. We’ve established that both native and non-native English speakers have trouble with the English Language and with punctuation. We looked at writing tone, apostrophes, and other punctuation marks in previous articles.
Today we’ll tackle the colon, the semi-colon and the hyphen in this article because they’re quite difficult to use and master. Please remember that these tutorials are not meant to be all inclusive, as we can’t possibly cover all aspects of these punctuation marks in one lesson. This post is simply meant to be something to point you in the right direction to writing English correctly. If you have trouble with common misused words in English, the linked article will help you.
Writing mistakes: punctuation-2
The colon is no longer widely used. Some writers hardly use this punctuation any more. I think this may be because there are several other better understood marks which can be used in its place.
The colon and when to use it
Even though I keep my colon use to a minimum, I use it to introduce a list. However, as you probably already know, short lists can be just as easily introduced with a comma.
1. Use a colon to introduce a list
For a longer and more complex list, you may want to use the colon. Look at the following example.
- These tutorials so far consist of three lessons. They are: lesson one – writing tone. Lesson two – the apostrophe. Lesson three – punctuation, part 1.
I chose to use the colon in this case because there were several parts to my complex list. Another reason was because I used many other punctuation marks in my sentences and I felt that the colon made my list read a lot easier and clearer than a comma would’ve done.
2. Use a colon to break up a long sentence
- In order to earn money writing online a freelance writer must do the following: create a blog as a platform for their writing, learn to specialise with the service they offer, work hard at finding well-paying clients, and keep existing clients happy by delivering high-quality work on time.
The semi-colon and when to use it
I think the semi-colon is slipping out of use because it is not one of those necessary punctuation marks like the comma or the full stop. Even writers who know how to use the semi-colon have fallen out of love with this punctuation mark because readers aren’t too keen on it. A semi-colon usually denotes a stop which is shorter than a full stop, but longer than a comma.
This can be quite a difficult balance to achieve, which means that some writers end up using a semi-colon instead of a full stop. This obviously encourages run-on, wordy sentences.
I have outlined the two most common uses for the semi-colon. These are the ones I mainly use. If the clauses get any more complicated than the examples shown below, I’d re-write the thought into shorter, separate sentences.
1. Use a semi-colon to separate lists where more information is given about one particular item.
- When I arrived at the picnic site he had already laid out: A vase, flowers included; some pancakes, smeared with ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ spread; two glasses of wine, chilled and dark; and a lovely salad with chopped, black olives on the top.
Notice that I used commas after the items themselves. Therefore, I had to use semi-colons after the individual explanations of said items or else this long sentence would’ve been extremely unclear and difficult to read. Only use semi-colons for lists like these. If you’ve got a straightforward list, it’s best to just use a comma.
2. Use a semi-colon to join two sentences which are connected.
- The ants on the picnic scene were noticeably slow; they had gotten hold of the chilled, dark wine.
I didn’t use a full stop because the pause would’ve been too long and would not have properly shown the reader the connection between the two thoughts. I could not use a comma here because the pause would’ve been way too short for the reader to get the consequential connection between the two.
Note: If I were writing a blog post, I’d probably use a full stop instead of the semi-colon.
Note: the semi-colon has more uses than have been illustrated here. The ones mentioned here are generally made use of on a wider scale – in everyday writing.
The hyphen and when to use it
Do not confuse a hyphen with a dash. A hyphen is used when you want to shorten the pause (and the relationship) between words, whereas a dash (which we will look at in another tutorial) lengthens the pause.
1. Use a hyphen to make your meaning clearer
- Yesterday we had two hour long tutorials.
Are we talking about two tutorials that lasted for an hour each, or are we referring to one tutorial which was two hours long?
To make the meaning of this sentence clear, we can re-write it in either of these two ways:
- Yesterday we had a two-hour long tutorial.
- Yesterday we had two hour-long tutorials.
In the above demonstrations, you can see how using a hyphen can make your meaning clearer to your reader.
2. Use a hyphen to link words together to make a compound word.
Most people understand the use of hyphens to make compound words like mother-in-law, court-martial, up-in-arms, etc.
3. Use a hyphen to form a compound adjective.
When the noun the compound adjective is describing comes immediately after it, you can use a hyphen to link the two adjectives together.
- She is a well-known blogger.
However, if the noun (blogger) comes before the adjective…
- The bloggers she associates with are all well known.
The adjective is not hyphenated.
4. Use a hyphen to change the meaning of words
In speech, your intonations and accents will make your meaning clear, but in writing it’s sometimes necessary to use hyphens when your meaning may be ambiguous. For example:
- I did a retake when I saw that the small, furry animal had nested in his head.
- I asked to re-take the driving test because the instructor’s furry wig made me lose concentration.
Using the hyphen in the second sentence makes my meaning clearer to the reader.
5. Use a hyphen to break up a word at the end of a line.
The rule is to never break up short words, one syllable words (like pawn, step etc) people’s names, other proper nouns, and words that are already compound words. In addition to this, never divide a word leaving only one or two letters on one line. For example, ‘res-pect,’ not ‘re-spect.’
If you must divide your words, make the break at the end of a syllable. For instance, ‘com-plete’ or ‘bridg-ing’, rather than ‘comp-lete’ and ‘bri-dging.’
I usually don’t break up words unless on rare occasions when I’m writing a hand-written note.
Here are some sentences for you to look through and correct in your own time. The answers are at the end for you to check how you did.
1. In this lesson we discussed the following. Colons, semi-colons; and hyphens.
2. I’m packed and ready for my week-end trip to the country. I’m taking these – a food pouch stuffed with snacks and plenty of tea bags a chocolate bar given to me by my brother and a roll of kitchen towel the quilted type.
3. His sister in law, a well known blogger, made her fortune writing about personal accounting in the web.
4. I asked my tutor to remark the test because I was not happy with the ‘F’ she gave me.
1. In this lesson we discussed the following: colons, semi-colons and hyphens. (2 mistakes. Note, it’s okay in American grammar to put a comma after the word ‘semi-colons’. In British English it’s okay to leave it out – because it comes before the word, ‘and’ – as long as you’re consistent throughout).
2. I’m packed and ready for my week-end trip to the country. I’m taking these: a food pouch, stuffed with snacks and plenty of tea bags; a chocolate bar, given to me by my brother; and a roll of kitchen towel, the quilted type. (6 mistakes).
3. His sister-in-law, a well-known blogger, made her fortune writing about personal accounting on the web. (2 mistakes).
4. I asked my tutor to re-mark the test because I was not happy with the ‘F’ she gave me. (1 mistake).
Anne Lyken-Garner is a published author, a freelance writer and editor. She has 4 blogs and writes about writing at A Blogger’s Books.