You don’t see semicolons used very often anymore and I think that’s for a couple of reasons. It’s a strange bit of punctuation that’s never essential for communicating meaning or rhythm in the way that a period or an apostrophe is. Another is that people are intimidated by the rules for their use. Hopefully we can help with that second part.
The most well-known use of the semicolon is to connect two sentences that have common subject matter. “I have to get my voice in shape; a new Rock Band game just came out.” You wouldn’t want to use this for sentences that are unrelated, i.e. “The sky is blue; don’t do drugs.”
You can also use a semicolon as something like a “super comma.” The idea here is that it makes a sentence easier to read than if it were just commas. Here is an example. “While searching for the perfect burger, I ate at restaurants in Seattle, Washington; Tokyo, Japan; and London, England.” It helps for situations where you’re using lists of locations or calendar dates.
Believe it or not, “alot” isn’t a real word. See, my spellchecker just underlined it…oh wait, you can’t see that. If you want to talk about a great quantity of something, it’s “a lot.” Two words.
Make sure not to get it confused with “allot,” a verb typically used in situations involving precise distribution of resources or responsibility.
The most common use of quotation marks is to indicate spoken or quoted language. You see this all the time with dialogue. “Hello,” he said. “How are you?” It’s also frequently used to indicate titles, although not consistently. Some people might use it for movies or books, others might use italics instead.
What do you do when dialogue includes a quotation? Then you use single quotation marks (basically apostrophes). Here’s an example.
“So I said to him ‘what’s going on?’ and then I realize that he’s drunk and passed out!”
A more modern use of quotation marks is a form of sarcasm. They are placed around a certain word to imply that the use of the word in the described context is illegitimate.
So Jonathan Swift’s “great idea” during the potato famine was to eat babies instead.
There’s also the question of whether or not other punctuation should be inside or outside the quotation marks. There isn’t really a consensus on this, so let’s look at both.
The book was called “Moby Dick”.
Logically, it makes sense that a period or another punctuation mark would be outside the quotes unless it was part of the work’s official title. And yet…this just isn’t aesthetically pleasing. In fact, it looks crappy. I think that’s the main reason why we see a lot of writing like this:
The book was called “Moby Dick.”
It just looks so much better! But you be the judge; take a look at each one and pick your favorite.
The Adventures of Peak and Peek
Another case of similar sounding words being confusing. Peek is when you take a quick look at something, usually when you’re not supposed to. As kids, many of us peeked at our Christmas presents.
Peak means the top of a mountain, but it’s also used figuratively as a synonym for “high point,” i.e. “The Cell Games saga is the peak of Dragon Ball Z.” There’s also a verb version of this where we can say something “peaked” at a certain point.
Compliment and Complement
Most people know that compliment is something positive you say about someone or something. However, when spelling it, it’s common to get it mixed up with complement, a less ubiquitous verb that refers to one thing matching something else well. An example would be “Her brown hair complemented her brown eyes.” I guess that’s also a compliment, but I think you get it.
Adjective forms of these words get a little weird. Complementary is what you expect and is used the same way as the verb, i.e. “Iron Maiden has three guitarists who play complementary parts.” However, complimentary has a few meanings. The one you would expect is an adjective similar to “flattering.” But another version is typically a synonym for “free,” i.e. “Get your complimentary mints on the way out of the doctor’s office.”
Have you ever seen someone try to calm someone else down on forums or social media by telling them to “breath?” I have. However, breath is a noun that refers to a single act of sucking in air and letting some out. Breathing is a verb that refers to this process and if you want to keep someone from flipping out, tell them to breathe.
Dashes and Hyphens
The two marks look the same but have different functions; one is much more versatile than the other. Dashes are used like brackets or parentheses. “The Wicker Man – the 2005 remake, not the 1970s original – is one of the unintentionally hilarious movies in recent history.” It’s considered less formal but it works. Dashes can also be used for emphasis and drama, i.e. “You might think Donald Trump is an idiot – you’re right.”
Hyphens have several uses. Are you ready?
- They are used for spelling out numbers and fractions, such as thirty-five and two-thirds.
- They are also used when a number connects with a word in a description, like 50-meter race or eighteenth-century architecture.
- They are used for describing certain family relationships, like great-grandfather or brother-in-law.
- They connect words in a way that makes more sense than if the two words were separate, such as anti-nuclear, post-grunge, rogue-like, etc. Sometimes these change over time, like when “e-mail” became accepted as email.
I hope this was useful! As always, feel free to suggest additional grammar issues that could use some clarification in the comments!