I did too. I used to think that authors, of all people, had a vested interest in getting their written language right. They have to! They're authors! But, apparently that's not always the case. And don't get me started on college students (commas and semicolons must have fallen out of the teaching curriculum decades ago).
Hope is not lost, though. No, the world can be saved. So, I give you step one for Making Friends With English: punctuation and pronunciation. What better a place to start than there? Here goes:
A semicolon is a piece of punctuation that splits two independent clauses; an independent clause is a statement like this one which does not require additional punctuation or words to stand on its own. (Everyone gets this wrong; you should know that for every time you misuse a semicolon, a baby is strangled to death by a comma.)
There are many uses for commas. First, you use them to connect two independent clauses, but with a coordinating conjunction, such as the one I used in this sentence (but). You also must use them after introductory phrases (such as "While I was at the doctor's office buying a year's supply of hamster tranquilizers (comma)"). However, it would take a month to tell you all the myriad ways to use a comma. So, I'll send you to OWL instead. Thanks, Purdue!
You use a period to end a sentence. See? Was that so hard? It was? Razor blades are on sale for $0.10 at Walmart. Hurry, there's still time.
The Question Mark
You do realize that a question mark implies that a question is being asked, right? Right?!
Dashes are sort of like really impressive commas--or so they say. They serve a similar purpose as commas or semicolons, but they are specifically used to add emphasis on whatever is being discussed.
Hyphens are used to connect words that form the same adjective, which is then followed by a noun ("I am a chocolate-loving ninja"). Or, you use them in numbers, such as the famous forty-two. There are a couple more rules, so I will send you to OWL, again.
Apostrophes are for possessives and a few other things. Don't forget to use apostrophes for contractions, and you certainly shouldn't ignore OWL's discussion of possessives. If you don't learn how to use the apostrophe correctly, you'll die twenty years earlier than you were supposed to. I know. I'm Death's English consultant.
A few things you should know:
--Commas are not semicolons. No matter how hard you try to make it true, a comma will never be a semicolon. It's impossible. They don't get along. Check your horoscopes.
--Sentences do have to have periods. The reason is complicated, and I won't bother trying to explain it here, because if I did, you'd be stuck reading for a month. Just know that the reasons involve a few dead guys, a rubber band, and a bottle of Kahlua.
--Commas shouldn't be thrown around willy nilly. They have a logic to them. If you can't play nice with commas, then the English language will get you. Trust me. I've been on the Internet for a while. Everything comes to bite you in the ass later.
--"It's" is not the possessive form of it. "Its" is the possessive form. Learn it.
Only a few things need to be said:
--If you don't know how to pronounce a word, then look it up or ask someone. In this day and age, it should be fairly easy to find a pronunciation guide. Hell, dictionaries (you know, those really old book things with lots of words in them, or is that not specific enough?) have pronunciation guides in them.
--Yes, making up your own pronunciation, whether on purpose or because you don't know any better, makes you look like an illiterate jackass. I don't care if you have published a dozen books. Don't do it.
--People in other countries do say things wrong. Don't mimic them, especially if they say "I'm right." You should especially distrust anyone who drives on the wrong side of the road. There's a reason why Americans drive on the right side of the road: because it's right.