As a content writer, it goes without saying that I hold myself to high standards when it comes to my use of grammar. Correct grammar is important; it not only makes your clients’ copy look more polished and professional, but it makes you, the writer, look smarter than you probably are. It’s worked for me so far!
However, despite my meticulous approach to my own work, I also try my best not to be one of those insufferable “grammar Nazis” who revel in picking apart minor errors in other people’s writing. I mean, you wouldn’t walk up to a stranger in the middle of the street and criticise their outfit, would you? (“Red and purple? Oh, honey!”)
So instead, I’m here to offer some handy grammar tips that will hopefully improve your writing skills—without making you want to punch me in the face!
Using a Semicolon (;)
While its winky appearance suggests a fun time, semicolons can be a bit of a headache to get your head around. They’re stronger than a comma, but not quite as divisive as full stop; they’re somewhere in the middle.
A semicolon is used to join two closely related independent clauses. As Grammarly explains, “the group of words that comes before the semicolon should form a complete sentence, the group of words that comes after the semicolon should form a complete sentence, and the two sentences should share a close, logical connection.” For example:
I ordered a cheeseburger for lunch; life’s too short for counting calories. (via Grammarly)
Similarly, semicolons can also be used when you have a conjunctive adverb (such as “however,” “nevertheless” and “therefore”) linking two independent clauses. For example:
The students had been advised against walking alone at night; however, Cathy decided walking wasn’t dangerous if it was early in the evening. (via Grammarly)
A different and more straightforward way you can use semicolons is to divide the items of a list, especially if that list is long and full of commas. In this case, they are there to simply help the reader. For example:
I need the weather statistics for the following cities: London, England; London, Ontario; Paris, France; Paris, Ontario; Perth, Scotland; Perth, Ontario. (via Grammarly)
Semicolons shouldn’t be used to introduce a list or a section, which is the job of a colon. As a matter of fact, some people would argue that semicolons shouldn’t be used at all. To quote the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, “here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons… All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Using an Em Dash (—)
The em dash, which is essentially a long hyphen, is my favourite punctuation mark. It’s smart, sleek and sophisticated (ok, maybe I love grammar a bit too much), and makes your writing both look and read better. It’s also incredibly versatile. Sadly, too many people either use it incorrectly or not at all, using commas and brackets in its place.
There are numerous ways you can use em dashes. They can be used to provide additional information (parentheses) within a sentence, stuff that isn’t crucial to understanding the rest of the sentence. For example:
Travelling—that is, travelling by public transit—can be a relaxing activity if you bring music and reading material along with you. (via Grammarly)
Em dashes can also be used to insert a small section of extra information within a sentence for clarification (an appositive). This works great if the information you’re adding requires commas because then it saves the sentence from looking like a jumbled mess of commas. For example:
Four of us—Mike, Amanda, Katy, and I—went to the conference last week. (via Grammarly)
Em dashes don’t always come in pairs. An em dash can also be used on its own to emphasise the conclusion of your sentence. For example:
After months of deliberation, the jurors reached a unanimous verdict—guilty. (via The Punctuation Guide)
If your sentence begins with a list, then use a single em dash at the end to explain or elaborate on it. For example:
Chocolate, strawberry, vanilla—all ice cream tastes good, especially on a hot summer’s day. (via Grammarly)
As you may have noticed, em dashes don’t usually have a space either side of them, although this depends on the style of the publication or website. Many newspapers insert a space before and after an em dash to improve readability.
Oh, and try not to use an em dash more than twice in the same sentence, otherwise it just makes it confusing for the reader. Imagine—if you can—clicking on a silly blog post about grammar—seeing a sentence full of em dashes—and trying to read it—without throwing your laptop out the window.
Fun fact: the em dash is named so because it’s the same length as the letter M. There is also an en dash (–), which is the same length as the letter N. Then there is the tiny little hyphen (-), aka the Baby Bear of dashes.
Numbers: Use Numerals or Spell ‘Em Out?
When including numbers in your writing, many people simply type out the number. In some contexts, such as when you’re talking about a year (2020), time (3:00 p.m.) or monetary amount (I have £0.00 in my bank), this is absolutely fine.
However, The Associated Press Stylebook—the holy grail of grammar—recommends that if you mention any number between zero and nine, you spell it out. Like I did there. For 10 and over, you can go ahead and simply use the numeral. Again, like I did there.
However, when it comes to titles, subheadings and interface labels, you should always use numerals, even for numbers between zero and nine. For example, 4 Amazing Grammar Tips From a Handsome and Talented Content Writer.
Do Full Stops Go Inside or Outside Brackets?
Good question! Thankfully, there’s a pretty straightforward answer to this one. If the bracket is part of the sentence that came before it, then the full stop goes outside the bracket. For example:
After reading this blog post, I will be an amazing writer (I hope).
But if the bracket is a full sentence on its own, then the full stop goes inside the bracket. For example:
After reading this blog post, I will be an amazing writer. (Lockdown still sucks, though.)