Semicolons and Colons


For years I have avoided using a semicolon, for fear I would do it wrong. It was almost the same with a colon, except that I knew it was useful for setting off a long list.

When I looked up the use of the semicolon I was surprised how simple the rules are for when to use it.

I thought I would share with you what I’ve learned.


One job of a semicolon is to link clauses that could stand alone as sentences, and that have a close relationship. The linking should be more effective than leaving them as separate sentences.

Here is an example:

The old man fell asleep whenever he began reading the book; the novel was obviously boring.

Why not use two sentences? Although each sentence could stand alone, they are closely related, and the point is better made by using the semicolon. Joining them with “and” would water down the effect.

Another job of a semicolon is for lists in text, or often in footnotes, where a dividing mark stronger than a comma is needed. Often we find this use of a semicolon in non-fiction writing to separate references.

Here is an example:

Attalos’ commands: with Alketas, Arr.4.27.5; with Koinos, Arr. 4.24.1; Meleagros, Arr. 4.16.1; 5.12.1; 6.17.3; Krateros, Arr. 4.16.1.

Notice that at the beginning of the list, after Attalos’ commands, we have a colon. This marks the beginning of a list, so we have a use for the colon in this sentence as well.

The colon is often used to separate a general statement from one or more items that support it. These explanations need not be complete sentences, but could be more like a list.

Here is an example:

I won’t be going to the party for two reasons: I have nothing nice to wear, and I haven’t been invited.

Other kinds of lists can also follow a colon.

My grocery list had several things on it: milk, eggs, sugar, flour, and baking powder. 

After you learn the use of semicolons and colons, and after my shopping is done, I could make pancakes for you.





Open or Closed

One problem writers sometimes struggle with is when to use hyphens to join descriptive words. Here are a few examples that show some of the basic rules to guide you in the use of hyphens.


  1. Sometimes we use an adjective and a noun to describe another noun.

Example:   a high-class event.

Without the hyphen we might wonder if it was a class event where everyone got high, or it took place on a mountain or in the penthouse. Did the event only allow the people from one class, such as grade 12?

The hyphen helps to clarify meaning.

The general rule is: hyphenated before but not after a noun, like this:

“a high-class event,”  but “the event was high class.”


“a small-town sheriff,” but “the sheriff was from a small town.” (If we wrote it without the hyphen [as in small town sheriff]  we might wonder if the sheriff from the town was small).


2. If you use an adjective and a participle, it might look like this:

“a well-dressed woman,”  but  “the woman was well dressed.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)

“an open-ended question,” but “the question was open ended.” (hyphenated before but not after a noun)


3. Adverbs ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective are open, whether before or after a noun. No hyphens.

It was a poorly paid job.

We ate a quickly prepared meal.


4. Adverbs not ending in “ly” and a participle or adjective.

“She got some much-needed dental work,” but “her dental work was much needed.”

“He had the worst-paid job at the plant,” but “his job at the plant was the worst paid one.”

(hyphenated before but not after a noun)

However …

when using  more, most, less, least, and very, these are usually kept open (no hyphen) unless ambiguity threatens.

For example:

most talented musicians (refers to almost all musicians with talent; the most in number), but the most-talented musicians (the musicians with the most talent).

When the adverb rather than the compound as a whole is modified by another adverb, the entire expression is open.

(from Chicago Manual of Style)


a very much needed job

There is much more to know about hyphens but we don’t want to go on overload.


Parentheses: When and How to Use Them

First of all, what is a parenthesis? It’s the singular form of parentheses.

Sometimes (often) they are mistakenly called brackets. See the difference here:

Parentheses (  )

Brackets [  ]


When should you use them? They are meant to set off words that have no grammatical relationship to the rest of the sentence.

1. Often they enclose words that are meant to add information or explain a term or idea just mentioned, but without the sudden interruption of a dash.


Three kinds of dogs (spaniels, shepherds, and chihuahas) went for a stroll in the park with their owners.

The First Amendment (guaranteeing freedom of speech) is under attack.

I cleaned the house (mainly dusted and vacuumed) and then I was ready to relax.

2. Parentheses can also be used to enclose terms given in another language.


He had a laissez-faire  (let things happen as they may) attitude.


His attitude was to let things happen as they may (laissez-faire).

3. Parentheses are used to enclose numbers in lists that are included in text.


She decided that her new diet would include (1) sun-dried tomatoes, (2) feta cheese, and (3) lots of pasta.

4. What do you do when you need to explain something and use parentheses inside parentheses?


If you do it the British way, you would use parentheses inside the original set of parentheses, but the American way uses a less confusing approach (brackets [the square kind] inside the parentheses).

5. Does the period at the end of the sentence go inside or outside the closing parenthesis?

It depends on whether the part in parentheses is a phrase inside the sentence, or whether it would stand alone as a sentence. Look closely at the subtle differences in punctuation in the examples below:

On the bakery shelf were six kinds of cake (all of which Mary wanted to taste).

On the bakery shelf were six kinds of cake. ( Mary wanted to taste all of them.)

My feeling about the use of parentheses is that they can help to explain things in an expedient way, but they are best avoided unless there is good reason to use them. Possibly they are more convenient for use in bibliographies and in scientific writing, but in fiction writing, it is often better to avoid their overuse.


Braces { }  This third type is used in programming language, as well as in mathematical and other specialized writing. Do not use them in place of parentheses or brackets.




Serial Commas

The old way of listing items was not to put a comma before the final conjunction.


Her favourite foods were pasta, salad, fish and avocados.

But fish and avocados don’t really belong together the way salt and pepper do, so the trend has been to add an extra comma to make this clear. The following way has become accepted.

When you list three or more items in a series, a comma should appear before the conjunction.

Here are some examples:

Her favourite foods were pasta, salad, fish, and avocados.

I chopped wood, George put it in the wheelbarrow, and Sam stacked it in the woodshed.

If two of the items belong together (like bread and butter or macaroni and cheese) there is no comma between them.


Her favourite foods were salad, fish, macaroni and cheese, and avocados.


Her favourite foods were salad, fish, avocados, and macaroni and cheese.

If your sentence contains a series whose elements are all joined by conjunctions like “and,” “or,” or “but,” no commas are needed, although you might want to put them in if the elements are long.


Turn left on Torrance and immediately turn right on Lazo and then go straight ahead for about half a mile until you get to my road, or take a taxi and avoid all that frustration.

One annoying thing I have noticed writers do when they make a list is to leave out the final conjunction before the last item.


Her favourite foods were pasta, salad, fish, avocados.

 (Please don’t do this. Just put that “and” in front of avocados and make me happy.)

Her favourite foods were pasta, salad, fish, and avocados.

Hyphens and Dashes

These little lines that float in the air between numbers and letters can certainly give a writer a headache.
I’d like to talk about three most commonly used “lines,” the hyphen (often simply called a dash), the en dash, and the em dash. You can think of the en dash as a line that is about as long as the typed letter “n,” and the em dash as one about the length of a typed “m.”
Here they are from shortest to longest.
– hyphen
– en dash
— em dash
When do we use them?
Does it matter which one we use?
Very much so.
Let’s begin with the shortest. The hyphen is mainly used to separate word parts such as when you are separating a word into syllables, but more often it is used to join two words that belong together.
In compound words:
Not all compound words are separated by a hyphen.
Some examples are:
downwind, houseboat, farmhouse, driveway, postman.
Some compound words need a hyphen.
long-term, mother-in-law, ready-made, fifty-fifty.
If you’re not sure when to use the hyphen between the two parts of the word, use your dictionary and try to remember the word for next time.
Hyphens are used as separators in numbers that are not inclusive. Telephone numbers, ISBNs, or social security numbers, for example.
Or you can use hyphens to spell out a word.
My name is Anneli. It’s spelled A-n-n-e-l-i.
Now that I’ve told you we use hyphens to separate numbers, I have to add that if the numbers are inclusive, such as “one to ten,” and usually if you can say from one number “through” to another number, you need to use an en dash, which is just a  bit longer than a hyphen.
Basically, with the en dash, you are saying “up to and including.”
Some examples:
The years 1970–1980 were the best of my life.
For more information, see chapters 8–10.
Come by for a visit on Saturday, 2:00 p.m.–4:00 p.m.
I live at 395–5th St.
Then we have the em dash (—). It is mainly used to set off words or phrases that explain something in the middle of a sentence when an abrupt separation is required and a comma won’t do the trick. Also, a sudden break or interruption in conversation can end with an em dash.
My favourite artists—Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Cezanne—were not represented at the exhibition.
I looked like I had aged  ten years overnight—I hadn’t slept a wink—but it was too late to worry about it now.
We stopped at Amy’s house—what a party she had going on—to pick up my sister.
“What should I—?”
There are many more uses for each of the dashes, but these are the most common ones. Sorting these out would be a good start. After that, we’ll see….

Ellipses – So Many Dots!

One thing I see frequently when I’m copy-editing (to be honest, I see it in almost every book I edit) is the confusion about how to use ellipses. (Before I go on, let me say that ellipsis is the singular form and ellipses is the plural).

Sometimes in our writing, we want to show that the speaker is hesitating. Sometimes we want to show that some words were left out on purpose. Sometimes we want to show that a person is just drifting off and stops speaking before finishing his sentence.

All of these things can be shown using ellipses. But how many dots should we use? If more words are left out, should we use more dots? If the hesitation is longer, do we use more dots?

The use of ellipses can be quite involved, but for writing fiction or for writing informally, here is a method that is fairly simple to learn and to remember.

Basically it is a three-dot method, although sometimes you may see four dots used. The fourth dot means that one of them is a period marking the end of the sentence.

Robert Bringhurst in Elements of Typographic Style, suggests that normally an ellipsis should be spaced fore-and-aft to separate it from the text, but when it combines with other punctuation, the leading space disappears and the other punctuation follows. He provides the following examples:

i … j k…. l…, l l, … l m…? n…!

I find these examples very helpful when I’m writing and want to show that something is missing. The examples also help me to keep my punctuation correct and stop me from going wild with more than four dots…………..

Have you seen this done? Have you done it yourself? Well, now you can do it right and quite simply without wondering what you should do.

Some examples for each of the above cases:

What kind of fruit do I like? Er … let me think….

I like bananas, oranges, and plums…, but most of all, … yes, I think I like papayas.

Do you like papayas best, or is there something else you prefer, like…? I know, it’s that one that starts with m…! Mangos!

Often, if we try, we can work around the use of ellipses, but if you really need them, try using the little chart above as a guide.

But don’t let them make you go dotty.

If you need a copy-editor, check out my WordPress page under “Copy-editing Services.”



Conversations and Punctuation

Dialogue adds interest for the reader and helps to bring them into the story, almost as if they were an invisible bystander in a conversation. It also helps to break up what could be dreary paragraphs of narrative that could be a turnoff after a while.

Using a conversation helps to show, rather than tell, what the characters are feeling. So, great! Why not use some dialogue to perk up the story? But be sure to do it right, or your reader will give up in disgust.

Some basic punctuation rules will help to make your dialogue look professional.

First of all, think of your dialogue as a sentence just like any other with a capital letter at the beginning and a period at the end.

Second, we want to show which words the person said. These go between double quotation marks.

“You sure are bossy,” Joe said.

The part that is inside the quotation marks is like a sentence within a sentence, but instead of a period at the end of what he said, we put a comma, or a question mark if it is warranted. These go INSIDE the closing quotation marks.

If there is a quotation inside a quotation, you would use single quotation marks to show that.

“Did he say ‘You sure are bossy’?” Darryl asked.

Supposing Joe had more to say, and wants to continue his sentence. The dialogue tag (Joe said) interrupts the words he is speaking, so we use a comma to separate it from the spoken words and no capital letter is needed to continue the words he spoke .

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said, “if you’d like to go to the movies with me.”

However, if Joe has two or more sentences to say, we must treat them just like any other sentences, separated by a period.

“I’ve asked you three times already,” Joe said. “That tells me you don’t want to come with me. Why didn’t you just say so?”

If you are trying to show that the character is thinking some words, these are put into italics and not within quotation marks.

“I’ve asked you three times to come to the movies with me,” Joe said. I guess that should have told me she doesn’t want to go.

If you have dialogue at the end of a paragraph and perhaps the speaker is changing the subject, so you want to start a new paragraph as he continues to speak, you leave off the final quotation marks but begin the new paragraph with quotation marks. This way we know it is still the same speaker. If it is a new speaker, we put the closing quotation marks on the sentence before beginning a new quotation.

“I painted the house since you were gone,” Joe said. “I hope you like it.

“By the way, would you like to come to the movies with me tonight?” he added.

Also, notice that no capital is used to begin the dialogue tag (he added) after the quotation, unless it is a person’s name, of course.

“I hope this helps you with your punctuation,” Anneli said, “especially in the case of a sentence interrupted by a dialogue tag.” I wonder what they’ll think. Will they leave a comment to tell me?


One of the problems I run into when I’m copy-editing someone’s work is the overuse of various efforts to emphasize writing.

An obvious one is the overuse of the exclamation point!!!! I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of overusing it too, but hopefully, not in published work. Oops! I just realized that a blog post is a published work. Okay, I’m going to exclude blog posts.

When we use exclamation points (or, as I call them, exclamation marks), we are taking the lazy way out. Rather than finding better, more precise words to describe the emotion we wish to portray, we stick an exclamation mark after some ordinary words. Sometimes we even put in two or more exclamation marks, mistakenly thinking that this shows the emphasis. No! Please don’t do it. One is enough.

Exclamation marks are meant to be used sparingly, and usually only after very brief expressions (like Oops! and No!) If you use exclamation marks liberally, you will sacrifice good writing. The reader will soon tire of the smatterings of unnecessary punctuation they find throughout your work.

Another bad habit that prevents good writing is the use of the passive voice. It de-emphasizes, where the active voice would lend more urgency to the expression.

For example, here is the passive voice:

The ribbon at the finish line was broken through by the exhausted runner.

Here is the active voice:

The exhausted runner broke through the ribbon at the finish line.

Using generalizations like abstractions, euphemisms, and circumlocution, also takes away the emphasis you might have shown by using more precise words to show meaning in detail.

He gave up the ghost last week.

He died on Friday.

He minimized his exposure in oil.

He sold all but 100 of his shares in British Petroleum.

Using vague expressions like “kill two birds with one stone” and “let the cat out of the bag,” dilutes your work. Get rid of this kind of verbiage and you will improve your writing.

Now we come to one of the most common, yet misguided forms authors use in aiming for emphasis in writing.

Throwing these words into sentences is supposed to add emphasis, but it waters down the writing into a boring assortment of overused words.

Instead of saying, “He was an awfully good friend,” why not tell why that was so, and say something like, “You could always count on Bob to be there if you needed help.”

Here is a list of words that most of us use without even thinking about it much. If we left them out of our sentences, we would be forced to write something better.





















If you find yourself using these words, ask yourself, “Do I need this word? Does it improve my writing? Can I come up with something better?”

I will save the last tip on overused words for next time, as it merits a page of its own.

Meanwhile, think of these suggestions as coming from one who is guilty of making these very mistakes and, like you, is learning along the way.

Awareness is a good place to start changing our writing for the better.

Why You Need a Copy Editor


You start reading a book and are just getting into it when you notice a repeated word. Oh well, you shake your head and continue. On the next page you find the verb “to lie” misused, and you feel irritated. Still, it’s a good story and you want to find out what happens, so you continue. Then you see glaring punctuation mistakes in the dialogue. At this point you begin to wonder if the author knows anything about writing. You had hoped at first that they were just typos,  but repeated errors and misused words (such as “peek” instead of “peak”) now have you wondering if you can stand to read a whole book of this quality no matter how enthralling the plot is.

As an author, I would be embarrassed to publish something like this, but often we can’t see our own mistakes. On re-reading our work, our brain tells us that the words say what we intended. Our eyes gloss over the  errors because, we already know what it says–we think! This is why all authors need a good copy-editor. Our  reputation hinges on publishing good, clean writing.


Most writers like to feel confident that their written work is free of errors. The truth is that often they are too close to their work to notice the errors that may be there.

Would you submit your work for approval if you knew that rejection was imminent? You can avoid that rejection by hiring me to proofread and edit your work.

What I Can Do for You   

Whether you have written a newspaper or magazine article, children’s book, short story, novel, or a university textbook, I can help you to make that work perfect.

I will read your work, checking for correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, balance in verb tenses, and word usage.  I will verify cross-referenced material and look for any inconsistencies in your work.

I use the Track Changes feature in Word to point out errors. This gives you the option of accepting or rejecting my suggestions without jeopardizing your original work.

If you wish, I can make recommendations for alternate wording to remedy awkward phrasing. If you need help in writing down your ideas, I can do that. I will edit your work unobtrusively.

I am comfortable and competent in editing work that is interspersed with German, French, and Spanish, including bibliographies that may contain foreign titles.

How to Send Me Your Work

You can send me your work as an email attachment, preferably as a Word file.

My Rates 

(US) $.01 per word for complete proofreading and copy-editing, checking for grammar, punctuation, word usage, and inconsistencies. I will do three pages for free so you can see the quality of my work before you decide if you’d like to hire me.

Rates are negotiable depending on the job. Discounts available for greater word counts.

Contact Information 

Anneli Purchase



  • 25 years of teaching
  • 19 years experience with copy-editing, as well as writing and editing novels and articles
  • Have attended creative writing workshops and conferences
  • Have edited university-level books and articles in Ancient History as well as in the Sciences
  • Can translate from German to English and have a good basic knowledge of French and Spanish
  • Will re-write work for you if desired
  • Can suggest changes to improve your writing if that is what you would like
  • Have a keen eye for grammar, word usage, spelling, punctuation and balance in verb tenses
  • References available

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*** Don’t forget to check out my other blog for stories and photos. Anything goes, on “wordsfromanneli.”