Grammar Breakdown: What You Need to Know

Graphic of a red haired girl standing on top of a pile of books shouting into a megaphone with words and punctuations coming out of it.

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a semicolon and a colon? Or an em dash and an en dash, or even that there was a difference? Look no further—this blog will discuss all the ins and outs of grammar punctuation you need to know. 

Why Are There So Many Differences? A Short Grammar History

Language and grammar have come a long way in the past decade—with Merriam-Webster adding 455 words into the dictionary in October of 2021—let alone the past 500 years of language and grammar development. But what do you need to know about grammar and its history? Well, here’s a short breakdown for the everyday user: 

Old English spanned from roughly 450 CE to 1150 CE. Many Latin and French words were taken from the end of Old English in 1150 CE. Middle English followed the end of Old English in 1150 CE. The Great Vowel Shift changed vowels in English from Latin pronunciations to how we say them today! 

The next and final period, Modern English, is split into two smaller periods: Early Modern English and Late Modern English. I know, I know; how much can language change in such a short period? You can think about Early Modern English as similar to what Shakespeare spoke (which is Elizabethan English) vs. what the Victorians/we currently speak. Modern English finally started standardizing the language, which gave us the grammar we know today! But, of course, many of us still make mistakes, so going back to the basics is always helpful. 

Em Dashes vs. En Dashes (and Hyphenations)

The two main dashes commonly used are the em and the en dash. The em dash is named after the letter “m” for its length, as opposed to the urban legend that it was named after poet Emily Dickinson because she used it so often! The em dash is the longer of the two and can be used in many ways: as a comma, a colon, or as parentheses—it’s a do-it-all punctuation tool (see how I used it there?). It can also be used to show interruptions in speech, a break in sentence structure, or to draw attention to a specific idea, as I demonstrated at the end of the previous sentence. Like the em dash, the oxford comma is a lesser-used yet popular punctuation mark amongst grammarians. When using em dashes as commas or colons, remember that they’re being used to connect two clauses which are groups of words that contain a subject and a predicate and work as part of a complex sentence. 

The en dash, on the other hand, gets confused with the hyphen. The en dash has more numerical uses and usually goes between numbers, dates, and anything else that means up to and including. For example, most people work 9 a.m.–5 p.m. While the em dash can be put in as two hyphens, the en dash can’t usually be found on your keyboard and is generally misused and replaced by a hyphen. But if you’d like to use the correct punctuation in Google Docs:

  1. Go to “special characters” 
  2. Search “en dash” 
  3. Click the first dash you see. 
  4. Voila! You know how to correctly use en dashes now. 

Meanwhile, the hyphen combines two or more words/syllables or when a word gets cut off on a page. Hyphens are a great way to create word combinations and clarify connections between words, like mother-in-law and eighteenth-century. The hyphen can be found on the upper left-hand corner of keyboards, and two hyphens can be used to create an em dash! 

Fast Facts:

  • Em dashes are a multipurpose punctuation mark and can add emphasis and be used in place of commas, colons, and parentheses.  
  • The en dash shows ranges in numbers and dates and can be added on your Mac using the keys “Option + Minus (-).” 
  • Hyphens are used to create compound words or clarify similar-sounding but different meaning words like “re-cover” and “recover.” 

Colons and Semicolons

While you can use em dashes to replace colons, here’s how you use both semicolons and colons by themselves. Colons are the two dots, “:” and are used to introduce information and give context. One way to think about colons is as a replacement for the phrases “which is/are,” “thus,” or “as follows.” They can be used to list things, too. For example, Online Optimism has offices in: New Orleans, DC, and Atlanta. The colon can also connect two sentences if you’re trying to emphasize the second sentence. Equally, the semicolon—which looks like a colon except with a comma “;”—can also connect two sentences. 

Realistically, you can use a colon or a semicolon to connect two complete sentences, but the difference is that the colon connects two sentences more definitively. One way to check you’re using either correctly is to replace whichever you’ve used with a period; the two sentences should still be independent clauses that can stand alone, compared with commas that connect two or more dependent clauses. Speaking of commas, don’t forget that commas (along with all other punctuations) go inside quotation marks!

Fast Facts:

  • Colons should not be placed between a verb and its object or between a preposition and its object. 
  • Semicolons can separate things in a list when items already have commas, and they can separate two related sentences! 

Ellipses, Ampersands, and Apostrophes

Dashes and colons aren’t the only valuable punctuation, though. Ellipses are the three periods—”…”—which can be used to omit words/sentences or indicate pause or hesitation in informal writing. Ampersands are rarely used in formal writing and are usually used in shorthand, brand names, and products. The modern ampersand symbol (&) originates from the Latin symbol for “et” in Latin. 

Although apostrophes are one of the most common punctuation marks, a refresher is always helpful! Apostrophes indicate possession in nouns (except in the word “it,” where the apostrophe suggests “it is”), omissions of letters, and show plurals in lower-case letters. For example, Online Optimism’s signature color is green: it’s our favorite! 

Fast Facts:

  • Ellipses can be marked or unmarked—when they’re unmarked, it’s an “elliptical expression” when missing a noun, verb, or other components that would make it grammatically correct. 
  • Ampersands are usually reserved for typographical and informal writing, as you’d simply write out “and” in formal writing rather than use a symbol. 
  • Another trick with apostrophes is that in plural possessive words, you can use the apostrophe without the additional “s.” For example, our Optimists’ hard work is always appreciated!

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