When you're writing something that's important to you, proofreading can make the difference between making an impact or not. Wait, when did I start sounding like a parrot who's swallowed a hundred Grammarly adverts?
In all seriousness, though, proofreading is something I've been doing professionally for many years now. Having said that, you can almost guarantee this is going to be the blog post where I miss a typo so that you can have a laugh at me in the comments section. It's OK. We're all human.
In all those years of checking other people's work, I've noticed some emerging patterns. Turns out, there are a few simple things that, if more people knew them, would save you and your proofreader so much time.
Here's the deal with dashes
Ah, the good old versatile dash, beloved of every writer speeding through their first draft. If, like me, you race to get your thoughts down on the page, then dashes are a brilliant time saver to let you write quickly and then come back later to sort out that sentence structure and punctuation.
However, not all dashes are alike. There are three you need to know about: the em dash, the en dash and the hyphen.
Here's what each one looks like:
Em dash —
En dash –
You've probably spotted straight away that the only visual difference between them is the length of the dash. Em dashes are the longest, while hyphens are the shortest. Do you know when you need to use each one?
Use a hyphen when you want to join two words or parts of words together. For example 'well-known', 'pet-friendly', 'ill-gotten'.
Use an en dash to show a span or range of numbers, e.g. 'Business hours are 9am–5pm'.
Use an em dash as a punctuation mark in a sentence, in place of commas, parentheses or colons. It's the most versatile of the dashes, but try not to go too overboard with it — a sentence that's too full of em dashes may be tricky to read.
If in doubt, you don't have to use that semi colon!
Semi colons can send people into a bit of a panic. They're not quite colons, not quite commas, and there is a lot of confusion out there about when and how to use them.
You might think I'm going to give you a helpful grammar lesson on the correct way to use a semi colon. But let's take a more radical approach. If you're not sure how to use a semi colon, the good news is that you almost certainly don't need it! Split that sentence into two; break that list up another way. A semi colon is the waistcoat of the punctuation world: it's smart, elegant, but rarely essential. If you're writing something informal and friendly, a semi colon may jar like turning up to a pyjama party in white tie.
This isn't a case against the semi colon; I'm actually a big fan of it. However, it's helpful to remember there's no rule that you have to use them, especially if you're unsure.
Sometimes (often) there isn't a simple answer
You wouldn't believe the number of times someone has approached me with a 'simple' question about grammar, sentence structure, or word choice, only to be subjected to a lengthy monologue where I enumerate half a dozen possible answers, each with their own pros and cons.
Language is a complex thing. Sometimes there are several ways to say the same idea. And as a proofreader and copyeditor, I often prefer to give people all the options rather than tell them 'you must write it this way'. Because surely the point isn't to stick rigidly to a set of rules, but rather to learn how to communicate with nuance and creativity, so that we all understand one another better.