If you have learned all the rules from grammar handbooks about how to use commas and semi-colons, but you are still confused about their usage, then try the following strategy: forget them and get to understand them in a different way.
Usage of Commas and Semi-colons
When thinking what punctuation mark to put in a sentence, read the text aloud and think of where you need to make a pause. It is important to read the sentence aloud because the place where you need a pause requires from you to take another breath. As such, if the pause is short, most probably you need to put a comma. If the pause needs more time to take (and it is not the end of the sentence), then you will need to put a semi-colon. A good thing to remember: the part of the sentence written after the semi-colon should be able to stand on its own without the first part of the sentence. In other words, that part of the sentence should be independent (like a separate sentence). If you do not want your target reader to make a logical pause when reading your text, then do not put punctuation marks where they are not needed because the text will be really challenging to read.
The text you write should not leave your target audience hyperventilating from the brief pauses and breaths that the punctuation marks demand. Therefore, consider essay punctuation rules when proofreading your paper. The process of reading your paper aloud should be natural.
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Usage of Hyphens and Dashes
When setting off a sentence clause — this is a good illustrative example — use an m-dash, which is a longer one. To be sure whether the m-dash is suitable in the sentence, remove the text that is between the dashes and see whether the text is readable and easy to understand without it. In the example provided above, the text is readable without the part between the dashes.
An m-dash can be used instead of the colon when you want to dramatically emphasize on some outcome or result (or pinpoint to the event that will take place). Actually, the purpose of an m-dash in this instance bears a surprising nature.
To differentiate between the usage of a dash and a hyphen, remember: an m-dash is used to break parts of a sentence, whereas a hyphen is used to set words apart (for example, in such words as a mother-in-law, well-being, etc.).
If you use abbreviations in text, make sure they are clear to your readers. Therefore, it is highly recommended to identify them when you mention them for the first time. Abbreviations may not be defined when you are sure that their meaning is known for all readers (such abbreviations as NATO, AIDS, etc.). If you use some specific terms that may not be known for a general audience, be so kind to define the meaning of the acronyms.
Apart from being well versed in punctuation rules for an essay, pay close attention to the sentence structures. As such, avoid split infinitives.
When referencing the sources you have used, make sure you provide the required information for each of the sources (please always consult styles guides when doing that). Proper referencing and punctuation is equally as important as punctuation for essay titles. When referring to some researchers or findings throughout the text, also make sure it is clear for a reader what you mean. In particular, when you write, “these findings present/ demonstrate, etc.” or “these critics,” or “some researchers claim,” make sure it is clear what critics or researchers claim what. Your reader will want to know who these all people are. Who are the researchers that have provided the findings?
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Avoid excessive usage of the demonstrative pronoun “this.” Actually, try to use it as a demonstrative pronoun only without introducing it in the sentence on its own. If you need to use “this” in the sentence as a subject, then prefer “it.” When you use “this,” readers might often be confused as to what exactly you are drawing their attention to.
Avoid using “that” when you refer to a person. In such cases, prefer using “who.” Some people find it offensive when they are referred as “that.” When talking about non-living things or objects in general, please use “that” or “which,” but when you talk about people, it is always a better choice to use “who.” Do not break the rules without realizing them.
In order for you to remember all the rules, take a notebook and start jotting down in brief at least the keywords of what you have to remember. You can as well organize such guidelines even on your laptop in some organizer or a special program. There are a lot of manuals on punctuation or grammar rules, but if you have troubles with some specific topics or find it hard to memorize a concrete topic in particular, try creating your own guidebook.
Once and forever: Please remember the difference between “who” and “whom.” If you are talking about the actor (a person who is doing something), then it is “who.” If there is a person who gets the action (over whom the action is performed), it is “whom.”
Avoid passive voice where possible. Writing an academic paper in passive is definitely not the thing your professor will be happy about. Try to always use active or paraphrase passive constructions in a different way.
Italicizing or underlining text. Choose one of these. Do not underline and italicize the same word/ phrase/ sentence at the same time. Previously underlining was mainly used by editors. So, when you are underlining an italicized text, it has a double meaning that the italics has to be called off.
Write in parallel constructions. It especially concerns lists, bullet points or parallel sentence clauses. Do not mix passive and active, present simple and continuous, gerunds and infinitives, and so on.