Semicolons, when they’re not winking at you, can be a useful punctuation mark. Some writers are fans of the mark; others could do without it. But whatever you think of semicolons, it can be helpful to know how they’re used.
The punctuation mark that many of us know as the slash appears on standard computer keyboards. But even though it sits right there next to the period and the comma—and though it was once used as a form of sentence punctuation like those marks—the slash is comparatively uncommon today in ordinary prose.
We hate to do this, but the next paragraph is going to contain errors. Microsoft Word won’t catch any of them. How many can you count?
Dashes—specifically, en dashes and em dashes—are like hyphens, but longer. And though there’s some overlap in how hyphens and dashes are used, dashes play a role all their own.
Variant spellings take a toll on editors everywhere. The minutes tick away whenever we leave our documents (as we often do) in search of the answer to that age-old question: What’s the preferred spelling of this word?
Periods are small but powerful. Not only do they bring entire sentences to a stop with a single dot, they’re also commonly found in abbreviations and numbers.
William Germano is professor of English at Cooper Union in New York. He’s also had a long career in publishing and brings some of that experience to his work as a teacher, in seminars and workshops worldwide and in the college classroom.
Italics can be applied for various reasons, but it is always with the same goal: to mark text as different in some way. This difference can be a matter of emphasis, or it can indicate the title of a book or movie or other work, the scientific name of a species, or the name of a court case, among other things.
Commas play at least two main roles in ordinary prose. They can set off words, phrases, and clauses—including direct quotations, questions, and thoughts—from the surrounding sentence. And they can be used between coordinate adjectives and other items in a series.
Narrators and characters in novels and other creative writing can talk about whatever they want. A character might read the Chicago Sun-Times; they might say they like to sing “Drivers License” while brushing their teeth. A narrator might mention a famous poem or novel or TV show: “The host didn’t mention that he’d heard the same joke on The Simpsons.”