Punctuation, Style & Usage

Advice and analyses of the mechanics of writing, including punctuation, style, usage, and grammar.

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Everyone’s got a favorite punctuation mark. As for me, I like the em dash. Seems like I often have something extra to say at the end of a sentence or find myself wanting to interject a thought between thoughts. I’ve got options, of course, but the em dash usually grabs my attention first. Em dashes are simple and clean, easy to type, and extremely versatile. They also make my writing flow the best. But take my advice: there are tricks to using the em dash effectively, and getting to know the ins and outs of this functionally fun punctuation mark is worth the effort if you want it to improve your writing.

What is the Em Dash?

The em dash is a dash that’s about as long as the letter m. Don’t mistake it with the en dash, which is shorter and typically used between numbers, dates, and times. It’s also not the same as a hyphen, the shortest dash and the one used in compound words.

While the em dash is often referred to as the long dash, it's a great way to bring tightness and focus to your sentences.

When is the Em Dash Appropriate?

If you’ve got an important detail you want to highlight or you want to show a sudden break in thought, the em dash may be just the ticket: Sarah decided to return the white dress—she never planned to keep it anyway—after her mother commented on how pale she looked.

It also works when adding a final thought: Eating healthy and staying fit and strong will improve your overall well-being—and keep you young at heart.

You might also use an em dash to set off an introductory series of nouns: Patience, empathy, and kindness—those were the virtues she preached the most.

Finally, em dashes make reading a sentence with other punctuation easier on the eyes: Fruits, vegetables, and protein—especially strawberries, cauliflower, and fish—are among her favorites.

Dos and Don’ts for Using the Em Dash

The em dash has a place in your writing, but it’s not always the right mark to use. Keep these dos and don’ts in mind:

  • Do place the em dashes in the right spot. When used with an interjected idea, put dashes on either side. When used for a final thought, place the em dash directly before the thought.
  • Do watch your spacing. Em dashes don’t need spaces between letters. Make them look neat on the page.
  • Don’t use the em dash if parentheses or commas make more sense; for example, when a detail is minor and doesn’t need amplification.
  • Don’t precede an em dash with a comma, colon, semicolon, or period. You may use a question mark or exclamation point, though: He made it on time—thank goodness!—and the meeting was a success.
  • Don’t overuse the em dash. If your entire page is filled with them, they backfire and become hard on the eyes. Place them sparingly throughout a piece of writing. And never use two or more em dash clauses in the same sentence

Got a propensity for the em dash? Me too. Use it appropriately and intermittently and make the mark work to your advantage.



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Semicolons get a bad rap for being a punctuation mark that’s outdated, pointless, and confusing to use. But many of those arguments have no merit. In fact, semicolons can serve an important purpose in writing, no matter what it is. Knowing how to place semicolons in the right spot for the right reason, though, is key, and can make this underrated punctuation mark a writing tool worth your time and attention.

Here are five things you need to know about semicolons. Use them mindfully, and see why there’s nothing semi about them.

They’re Effective for Emphasis

If you want to emphasize your point by reinforcing it with a similar thought, the semicolon can help you out. For example, “She never works late; only a crisis would keep her at the office past five.”

They’re Best When Not Noticed

Don’t let the semicolon stand out and distract the reader. Instead, slip it in where it won’t be noticed. Too many semicolons are noticeable. Just one strategically placed within a paragraph on a page is all you need for a subtle break from the usual punctuation.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Period

Semicolons can often be replaced by periods, but sometimes a semicolon is a better choice. If the sentence needs splitting up but doesn’t make two different points, try the semicolon. It might be just the connector you need.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Comma

That’s especially true for complex lists—like those that already include commas. Example: She did three things this morning: read the paper; planned her trip to Washington, DC; and made a yogurt, berry, and granola parfait. Choose semicolons over commas with transitional adverbs, too: She knows how to knit; however, she only learned the skill yesterday.

They’re Nothing to Fear

Don’t be afraid of semicolons. They won’t make you look like an amateur. In fact, semicolons are completely acceptable and even a good thing when used properly. Practice using the semicolon and get comfortable with it. You’ve got nothing to lose, other than your fear.

If you’ve wondered whether you should use a semicolon, wonder no more. It’s a useful punctuation mark that’s full of value and function. Go ahead and get on the semicolon bandwagon; just be wise with it for the most impact.

Image by SpeedyGonsales

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writing v editingMost of us writers know that writing and editing have a lot in common. For one thing, they both need each other. You can’t write, or write well, without editing, and you can’t edit without a piece of writing. For another, they both involve words, grammar, mechanics, communication, headwork—and the list goes on.

But writing and editing are actually very different disciplines, and understanding those differences can go a long way in making you better at either—or both. Check out these five, and learn what skills you need to use for each process. You might even discover which one you’re best suited for.

Writing is about creating; editing is mending.

Writers are creators of stories. They know how to tell a tale or put an idea into readable form. A thoughtful, creative mind is a quality of a good writer. Editors are fixers. They’re good at cutting, pasting, adding, revising, restructuring, and rewording.

Writing requires finding research; editing corroborates it.

While writers must find resources to back up their facts, editors do the fact-checking. They need to verify that the writer is telling the truth. Fact-checking is a good skill to have as a writer, but it’s essential for an editor.

Writing uses the heart; editing relies on the head.

Writers are a passionate bunch. They write with heart, soul, and all the senses. Editors make sure the writing isn’t overly emotional, flowery, or opinionated and that it appeals to the intended audience. Editors must be mindful and objective.

Writing takes reading; editing takes resourcefulness.

Most good writers are avid readers. Reading makes writers better at their craft. Editors benefit from reading, but they must be good at using resources even more. Knowing how to make something read better by consulting style guides is key for editors.

Writing can’t be interrupted; editing can.

Writing is something you need hours of quality, uninterrupted time to do. Editing can be done in pieces—a paragraph or page at a time. It helps to have continuity when editing; writing, on the other hand, depends on it.

Writing and editing go hand-in-hand, but they’re not the same thing. Even though many writers are editors and vice versa, each requires a different set of skills. Know what it takes to do either job and learn how to become better at what you do best.

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When it comes to writing about animals, the issue of gender pronouns often pops up. Should you call the family cat in your story a he, she, or it?  What about the neighborhood coyote? The doe in the woods? Or the yapping terrier in the passing car?

As writers, we may not put much thought into something as seemingly insignificant as animal gender. Who really cares what we call them, right? Actually, our readers do, more than we might think. And it isn’t worth it to assume otherwise because our respectability—and our potential sales—could be at stake.

Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to gender pronouns for animals. Generally speaking, personal pronouns shouldn't be used unless the sex of the animal has been established. That’s straight from the AP Stylebook. But before you start calling every dog, cat, and fox an it, consider this advice from my ebook No Average Writer:

Some writers prefer to take a more personal approach to the treatment of animals in writing, especially domesticated and familiar animals. To call a stray kitten an it, for example, may seem cold and inhumane. The problem with using he, the formerly accepted generic pronoun for people, is that it’s now considered sexist and inappropriate. But while he may offend some readers, using she isn't exactly a fair alternative.

When he/she or it doesn't do the trick, writers have the option to reword their writing. One way to do that is to choose the plural form of the animal. For example, the sentence “When a dog feels ill, he chews grass for comfort” could be changed to “When dogs feel ill, they chew grass for comfort.” However, as William Zinsser explains in his classic book On Writing Well, “this is good only in small doses. A style that converts every ‘he’ into a ‘they’ will quickly turn to mush.”

For some writers, using the phrases he or she and him or her for an animal whose gender isn’t known can work too, although this will also get tiresome and clutter the writing. Another option is to change the pronoun to a noun (i.e., instead of using he for a dog, substitute the dog. the pooch, the pup, etc.)

Sometimes, whether to give an animal a gender pronoun depends on the publication where the writing will appear. For example, the Humane Society, PETA, and other organizations devoted to the compassionate treatment of animals might frown on using it in their publications when referring to an animal. Choosing either he or she and then using that pronoun consistently might be a better approach for them. On the other hand, a newspaper aimed at the general public may favor the pronoun it for animals.

Bottom line? Next time you write about animals, consider gender pronouns carefully—and then reference with reverence. You’ll make your readers happy and your writing more credible and thoughtful.

For more information on gender pronouns for animals, see No Average Writer.

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Writing numbers seems pretty straight forward—seems being the operative word. In reality, numbers have some important guidelines in writing, and following those guidelines can make a world of difference when it comes to clarity, cleanness, and professionalism. Here are three cardinal tips for writing numbers:

  1. Don’t just assume. Don’t assume you should spell out a number. Likewise, don’t assume you should use a numeral. Instead, take the time to consider which way is best, given the audience, context, size of the number, and need for preciseness. If you don’t get direction on how to treat numbers, consult a style manual or grammar guide. Putting a little effort into your writing—even for the simple things, like writing numbers—will make your work that much better.
  2. Avoid too many. Numbers are great for citing facts and figures, making comparisons, and providing key details. But too many numbers, whether spelled out or in numeral form, can clutter up a page and disrupt the flow of the words. Sometimes numbers can be substituted by words that imply quantity, like many, numerous, and a multitude.  In fact, sometimes it’s better not to be so precise with numbers: 985 people might be better expressed as “nearly a thousand.”
  3. Be consistent. If you’re following a guideline from a certain style book, an editor, or your own choosing, keep at it throughout the entirety of the piece. Don’t suddenly switch gears and spell out numbers when you’ve been using numerals thus far—unless there’s a good reason, such as spelling out a number at the beginning of a sentence or when two numbers appear side-by-side (i.e., six 14-year-olds). Generally, consistency trumps correctness when it comes to writing numbers.

Remember, numbers are important in writing. But they should complement words, not stick out like sore digits.

For more on writing numbers and other style issues, check out my e-book No Average Writer.

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editing If self-editing isn't your thing, you’re in good company. Plenty of writers don’t like doing it. Some writers skim through the task just to get it done quicker; others skip it altogether. I wouldn't recommend either, even if you have someone else lined up to do the job. While a peer or professional edit can be enormously useful, self-editing has worth, too. In fact, done with caution and care, self-editing can pay off in ways you may not have considered.

Here are nine reasons to take the task of self-editing seriously:

It’s good practice. Self-editing is a good way to brush up on the rules of grammar, spelling, and style. It also helps you become more proficient at using key writing resources, like dictionaries, thesauruses, and style guides.

It can make or break a sale. When there isn’t time or resources to send your work out to be edited, a self-polished piece has a much better chance of landing a sale than one that hasn’t been reviewed by you.

It’s free. Professional editing doesn’t come free, but self-editing does. Even if you do get your work professionally edited, cleaning it up first can decrease the time a professional uses, right along with the fee.

It’s a productive diversion. Self-editing gives you a break from writing. You’re still working with words, but you’re doing it in a different way. Self-editing is a diversion that’s both productive and refreshing.

It helps improve your writing. Self-editing is essentially the process of making your writing better—clearer, cleaner, and more professional. And who doesn’t want to improve their writing?

It makes you more serious. When you put some effort into self-editing, you show others that you are serious about your craft and credibility. More important, you prove it to yourself.

It adds closure. Think of self-editing as a final step in the writing process. When you give the task your all and complete it, that’s when you know your work is done and ready to be read.

It’s what true professionals do. Self-editing is the fine-tuning you do that separates you from hobby writers and less serious professionals. A self-editing job well done earns you respectability.

It does more good than harm. What are the cons of self-editing? It takes time, you might miss errors, and you may not enjoy yourself. But just re-read all the pros above, and you’ll see all the good that self-editing does!

For more information on editing your work, check out my earlier posts on punctuation, style, and usage.


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Prepositions are about as ordinary as words get. We use them all the time, in practically every sentence. They’re short words, averaging two to four letters long, that don’t draw much attention to themselves. In fact, they’re often barely noticed by readers. But to writers, prepositions matter. They link sentence parts together and help show the relationship between the parts. They give readers a better sense of time, place, and movement. And they add flow and readability to our work.

At the same time, though, prepositions can make us writers stumble, second guess ourselves, and scratch our heads over what to do with them. As small as they are, prepositions can raise big questions—questions that are far more common than you’d think:

Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?

There seems to be an unwritten rule that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. It isn’t true. You can—and sometimes should—end a sentence with a preposition. The proper question is when is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?

Grammarians and style guides will give you all kinds of advice. Some say only in informal writing; others believe you can do it in any writing. Still others say end a sentence with a preposition if there’s no other way around it. So who’s right? They all are. Basically, it boils down to you, the writer. If your sentence reads well, makes sense, and delivers the meaning you intended with a preposition at the end, leave well enough alone. Sometimes, rearranging a sentence to get the preposition off the end makes the sentence too awkward—and that can weaken the writing.

Of course, when you’re writing for a reader or audience that holds to strict grammar rules and you don’t want to stir up controversy, stick to the old-fashioned rule.

Should I capitalize prepositions in a title?

Now this question seems like it would have a straightforward yes or no answer—and if I had to give you one, I’d answer with a “yes.” But then I’d waver a bit, add “usually” and then “but not always.” Basically, the answer lies in the style guide you happen to be following. For me, it’s Chicago, and Chicago says to lowercase all prepositions . . . in most cases. The exception? When a preposition is part of an adjective or adverb phrase, like “Off Road” or “Back Up,” or a Latin expression, like “In Vitro.”

Not everyone follows Chicago, though. Some writers, for example, are directed to capitalize prepositions that have five or more letters in a title. Sometimes, it depends on the type of title—whether it be a book title, a journal title, or a subtitle—or the case (sentence or title case). Bottom line? When it comes to capitalizing titles with prepositions, follow guidelines not your gut.

Am I using the right preposition?

Which preposition to use can be particularly troublesome because people often interchange prepositions when they speak. Is it “steps for eating healthier” or “steps to eating healthier”? I’ve heard and seen both. How about “concerned with her manner” and “concerned by her manner”? Same thing. So how do you decide?

Figuring out which preposition to use might take some analyzing—and a peek inside your dictionary. Prepositions have general meanings that can help you determine if they’re fitting for a particular phrase. For example, “by” more commonly shows cause, while “with” shows the object of a feeling. “Concerned with her manner” makes better sense, then, than “concerned by her manner.”

Logic plays a part when choosing the proper preposition, too. Ask yourself, what makes the most sense? Which preposition conveys the meaning best? What would a reader understand? If you still can’t decide, take the easy road out and rewrite the phrase. “Steps for eating healthier,” for example, can be changed to “ways to eat healthy.”

Is this preposition necessary?

Clutter in writing is a common problem, and prepositions are a common culprit. Often, a preposition doesn’t need to be there. “Where did you find this at?” is one instance. Remove the “at,” and the sentence makes just as much sense, with one less word. Likewise, “she was honored by the dean of the school” could be written “She was honored by the school’s dean” or, better yet, “The school’s dean honored her.”

I’m not saying you should try to eliminate every preposition you can. Prepositions have a place and purpose in writing. But they are so familiar and simple to use that writers often overdo them. If you can remove a preposition or prepositional phrase without doing any damage to context and readability, then do. Your writing will be cleaner, clearer, and more concise.

Prepositions are tricky words for sure. But with a few questions answered, you can use them exactly how they were meant to be used—to help make sentences the best they can be.

Looking for more help with style and grammar issues? Download my e-book No Average Writer: How to Stand Out in the Writing Crowd and Write Your Best.

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Blank Ringbound NotepadMy new e-book, No Average Writer: How to Stand Out in the Writing Crowd and Write Your Best, is now available!

What's different about this book? First of all, it doesn't address every aspect of writing. Instead, No Average Writer points out common writing mistakes that you may not even be aware you're making—and how to avoid making them. The book also focuses on how to improve your writing skills and style, rather than trying to write like someone else.

If you want to get noticed among the throng of writers out there, why not give the book a try. Read on for more information:

Are you a writer whose words fail to come to life on the page?  Does your research lack substance or credibility? Can your grammar and usage use a facelift?  Has your attempt at self-editing fallen short? If you answer yes to any of the above, you may be an average writer. The good news is, you don’t have to be! Whether you’re a new writer or a not, you can improve your craft and break out of average-writer status with a little determination and know-how. No Average Writer is a quick, easy-to-read guide offers tips and tricks for how to stand out in the writing crowd—and write your best.

Published by Draft2Digital, No Average Writer can be downloaded through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and iBooks for $2.99. Please check it out!


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textingTexting and e-mailing are great ways to communicate. They offer a simple, convenient, and quick way to write and receive messages. Like everyone else, I love being able to communicate by text or e-mail, not just in my personal life but especially in my writing life.

There is a downside, though. These useful communication tools can adversely affect the quality of my writing. They can make me lazy or even loose with my spelling, grammar, and style. And this can hurt me professionally.

At least I know I’m not alone. Just browse the Internet and you’ll see how lax writing has become. Maybe this trend doesn’t matter for some people. But for those of us who need to keep our writing in top form, we can’t afford to let technology weaken our craft. To make sure I don’t, here’s what I do: edit, edit, edit. And then I edit some more.

Usually, I can catch errors and clean up my writing before it goes public. Usually. But I also know what I’m looking for. If you’re wondering whether you’ve fallen prey to the problem, check out these 10 red flags:

  1. You use fragments rather than complete sentences.
  2. You don’t spell out numbers when you should, or you use numbers for words.
  3. Your punctuation is sparse—commas are left out, capitalization rules are ignored.
  4. You write hastily, scrambling to finish and never looking back.
  5. Your spelling has deteriorated (you rely too much on spell checkers).
  6. You go crazy with exclamation points (which should be used rarely, if at all, in formal writing).
  7. Brevity in your writing is extreme.
  8. You use cyber slang, abbreviated words, and too many colloquialisms.
  9. You don’t separate your writing into paragraphs.
  10. You rarely use salutations or address people by name.

In this new tech age, we writers have to be extra alert. Texting and e-mailing may make our lives easier, but the benefits of speed and convenience can come with a price.

Image by Intel Free Press



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frustrationI have to admit I’m a stickler when it comes to grammar. While most readers skim over minor mistakes, whether in email or more formal writing, I zero in on them. Lately, I’ve been coming across the same three writing errors. I’ve made these errors too, so I know they’re easy to make. But they’re also easy to fix. Here’s how:

  1. Their, they’re, and there. Interestingly, this is a big one. For most writers, misusing these three words is just an oversight, nothing that a quick glance back can’t fix. But for those who are truly confused, try this: get to know and understand each word’s meaning or purpose—“they’re” is a contraction, a substitute for “they are”; “their” shows possession or ownership; and “there” refers to a place or direction. Understanding these three words can make all the difference when writing them.
  2. The misplaced comma. In my opinion, commas are more often a nuisance than useful, especially since they’re so regularly misplaced. One of the most common writing errors I see is a comma placed after a conjunction: She likes to drive but, she’s bad at it. The rule? In a sentence with independent clauses and a conjunction (but, and, or, so, yet), the comma goes before the conjunction. For more comma talk, see my earlier blog post.
  3. One space, not two. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but this one is worth learning. No longer are two spaces required after a period at the end of a sentence. In fact, it just plain doesn’t look good—or professional. Plus, one less space saves, well, space! This applies to question marks, exclamation points, and other punctuation at the end of a sentence. One space is also recommended after a colon.

Everyone makes grammatical mistakes. Here are three worth paying attention to…and fixing.