A Guide to Commonly-Confusing Punctuation: Part 1

Unless you’re a professional writer or teacher, you may not spend much time thinking about grammar and punctuation. In fact, when you look down at the keyboard, there may be a punctuation mark that is entirely foreign to you. Nevertheless, most people would admit that grammar and punctuation are what makes our writing readable, and in some cases, they even help us avoid awkward phrasing. Don't forget to check out these seven tips to improve your grammar skills

While many people understand how to use punctuation marks like periods, commas, and question marks effectively, there are several others that you may avoid because you’re unsure about how and when to use them. Below is a guide to commonly-confusing punctuation, beginning with three challenging marks:

1. Semicolon

Although the semicolon is known as one of the most confusing punctuation marks, you may find it easier to use than you first thought. Semicolons connect two independent thoughts in a single sentence, even though they could be separate sentences.

Consider these sentences: “I would like to go to the beach today. It seems like a perfect day for swimming.” Instead, you could write, “I would like to go to the beach today; it seems like a perfect day for swimming.” This works because the two sentences are complete on their own, but they make sense together. You may want to take a look at these simple ways to improve your writing skills as well.

2. Parentheses     

Parentheses can be tricky to work with because they can be used for a number of different reasons. For example, if you are writing in APA Style, you might use parentheses to create an in-text citation that contains the author’s name, as well as the page number and date that corresponds to the information you are citing. However, parentheses are more generally used to include clarifying information in a sentence.

For example, when writing a paper that includes illustrations or charts, you can use parentheses like this: “In 2005, the amount increased substantially from the previous year (see Figure 2).” In this case, the parentheses indicate to the reader that the information corresponds to a chart that is contained somewhere in the document. These tips may be able to help you boost your writing skills.

In creative writing, one might use parentheses to add more information. For example, “On his way home, he passed the corner store (it would burn down two years later) and considered stopping in to buy something.” In this case, the meaning of the sentence would be clearly conveyed without the parentheses, but the author felt that it was important to note the additional information. Notice that the sentence would still be complete if the parentheses and the contained information were removed.

3. Colon      

A third example of commonly-confusing punctuation is the colon. Like parentheses, colons can be confusing because they are used in different ways depending on the writer or the style. Generally speaking, however, a colon is used in cases where the writer intends for something to follow a complete sentence. For example, if you said, “The United States Constitution states that there are three branches of government,” you could expect to also say what those are, even though the statement is a complete sentence. In that case, you would say, “The United States Constitution states that there are three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.” In this sentence, the colon acts as a literary way of saying, “And they are…”

Another appropriate use of the colon is to introduce an idea or quote that is connected to the preceding statement. For example, if you were talking about former President George H. W. Bush’s tax policies, you could say, “In a 1991 speech, Bush made his feelings about tax increases clear: ‘Read my lips, no new taxes.’” In this case, the colon indicates that an example that will clarify or support the statement is about to be given. You may also want to consider seeking a writing tutor who can assess your specific needs.

While there are many other, more advanced uses of the aforementioned punctuation, these basics should serve you well as you delve into the world of commonly-confusing punctuation. Don't forget to check out our guide to commonly confusing punctuation: part 2!