Think You Know Punctuation?


Having a handle on proper grammar may seem unnecessary, but it is a pivotal accessory in whatever professional sphere you might advance to.

There are some schools where English class is a rigorous cornucopia of learning. Students learn subjects, verbs, participles, tenses, even sentence diagramming! I was lucky enough to have this experience. But, throughout college and now as I join the working force, I’m noticing more and more how often this class is downgrading to simple sentence formation and reading Shakespeare. It’s sad but, with budget cuts and overfilled classrooms, sometimes there’s no other option.

Having a handle on proper grammar may seem unnecessary (what with spell check and Google right at your fingertips), but it is a pivotal accessory in whatever professional sphere you might advance to.

So here I am, armed with my grammar police badge and handy-dandy pencil, to give a crash course to sharpen those cover letters or office memos. I’ll be posting one article a week, detailing need-to-know grammar skills. Today, I’ve chosen some punctuation normally used incorrectly; specifically, we’ll focus on the comma, semi-colon, em dash, and en dash.



Everyone knows the comma; more precisely, everyone knows how to overuse or underuse the comma. I envision the comma as the same as taking a breath. When you read a sentence out loud, see where you naturally pause. This can be for effect or for division of sentence. Obviously, this rule isn’t foolproof, but it’s a good starting point for anyone questioning whether or not they really need the comma.

Ex. 1: Thomas went to the movies, and he bought a large popcorn.

  • Thomas is the subject of the first half of the sentence; he is the subject of the last half. Commas are used when dividing two independent clauses (sections of sentences that can stand on their own. Thomas went to the movies. He bought a large popcorn.) The comma must be accompanied by a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet) to accurately form the compound sentence (more than one subject/verb).

Ex. 2: Thomas went to the movies, knowing he would buy a large popcorn.

  • Here, it is natural to take a breath after the main chunk of the sentence. The latter sentence section cannot stand on its own, but is separated for stylistic choice. Reading aloud or going over the sentence in your head are helpful ways to determine where commas benefit your sentence.

Commas also separate groups of words, things, ideas, or objects. (See what I did there?) Use of the Oxford comma is widely in debate amongst writers, but I’ll leave that for another article.

Semi-Colon (also spelled semicolon)


This is one of the most incorrectly used punctuation marks I see. A semi-colon is actually very similar to the comma, except it is only used to separate independent clauses, leaving out the conjunction.

Ex. 1: RIGHT – Thomas went to the movies; he bought a large popcorn.

WRONG – Thomas went to the movies; Shirley’s favorite color is pink.

  • Semi-colons shouldn’t be used to just join sentences willy-nilly. Both independent clauses should be related somehow, perhaps by the content or meaning of the sentences. Above, in the WRONG example, the two clauses have nothing to do with one another, and should remain separate sentences.

Ex. 2: Thomas went to the movies; knows he’ll buy a large popcorn.

  • This is also the incorrect usage of a semi-colon, one I see often. The second half is a dependent clause, meaning it can’t stand on it’s own as a complete sentence. Therefore, it should not be separated from the dominant section of the sentence.

Em Dash

My personal favorite, the em-dash is becoming more and more popular in today’s writing world. This is one of the most versatile elements in punctuation and usually depends on the writer’s style. However, most people don’t realize there are two types of em-dashes: the 2-em dash and the 3-em dash. The 3-em dash is primarily for bibliographies, so we’ll focus on the 2-em dash, which is most likely the one you will be using most often.

The 2-em dash can be used to signify a missing word or sudden stop in speech as well as a way to section off certain material from the dominant part of the sentence.

Ex. 1: “What the f—” Thomas started to yell before the moviegoer next to him placed a finger to his lips.

Ex. 2: “Don’t go in—” Thomas started to yell.

“Will you shut?” snapped the moviegoer next to him.

  • Both of these examples show how missing words or cut-off speech can be illustrated. This is often confused with the ellipsis (…) which should be used with speech that trails off rather than stops abruptly.

Ex. 3: Thomas went to the movies—the old, cheap theatre on the corner of Walker and Trent—to see the new Suicide Squad.

  • Here, an author can choose whether to use commas, parentheses, or the 3-em dash to add sections of information. This is often used in creative or magazine writing.

En Dash

Finally, we come to the en dash. This punctuation connects numbers and, much less often, words. Should a grouping of numbers be continuing (dates, times, page numbers), you can think of the en dash meaning up to and including (or through).

Ex. 1: The years 1920–1929 are referred to as the “Roaring Twenties.”

Ex. 2: Chapters 1–5 describe how the “Roaring Twenties” saw some of the fastest economic growth in this nation’s history.

Ex. 3: The “Roaring Twenties” are covered from Chapter 1 to 5.

Ex. 4: The years between 1920 and 1929 are referred to as the “Roaring Twenties.”

• As shown above, the en dash should never be used if the set of numbers is preceded by “from”; instead, use the word “to”.

Similarly, use the word “and” if the set of numbers is preceded by “between”.


Now you can polish up those essays, work emails, or pleasure writing and know you haven’t committed any egregious grammar mistakes! Till next time, happy writing!


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