Specifically: I’ve been thinking about when to use semi-colons, colons, and dashes. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I started writing professionally in 1989. More recently, Alex Gabriel and I were talking about our tendency (and many writers’ tendency) to overuse these punctuation marks. They are lovely and fun to use, and sometimes they’re exactly what you need: but they can make for precious, complicated, hard-to-read sentences with too many clauses and sub-clauses. I’ve been thinking more carefully about how I want to use them, and working on making my use of them more consistent instead of just using whatever looks right. So I wanted to share the guidelines I’ve been using, my own personal style manual. And I wanted to get opinions and feedback.
Period and commas. The main guideline comes straight from Alex: Whenever it’s reasonable, replace semi-colons, colons, and dashes with periods or commas. Shorter sentences are generally better.
But shorter sentences aren’t always better. Sometimes, replacing semi-colons, colons, and dashes with periods or commas would make the writing clumsy or unclear. When that’s the case, here are my guidelines.
Colons: I use a colon when the clause following it is a complete sentence. (Example: “You didn’t decide to be an atheist: you decided to ask questions, look at evidence, prioritize reality over wishful thinking, and quit pushing your doubts to the back burner.”
Note to self: These colons can often be replaced with periods, splitting the sentence into two.
Semi-colons: I use a semi-colon when the clause following it is not a complete sentence. (Example: “After all, what could make you feel more important than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares passionately about you; that he wants more than almost anything for you to do right and be with him after you die, and is even waging a war for your soul?”)
Note to self: These semi-colons can also sometimes be replaced with periods, splitting the sentence into two with just a little recasting. They can also sometimes be replaced with commas.
I also use semi-colons in the place of commas, when I have a sentence with a list of things, and the things being listed are longer phrases or clauses instead of single words or very short phrases. This is especially the case when one or more of the things being listed is a phrase that has a comma in it. (Example: “I love that we’ve dressed it up in studs and feathers, boots and stockings; that we’ve added personal theater and public theater; that we’ve spent millennia exploring it in painting and writing and film and pixels.”)
Note to self: Consider whether commas would be better. This is, however, a generally legitimate use of semi-colons.
Dashes: I use a dash when the clause following it is not a complete sentence, but when a semi-colon seems wrong — mostly because the second phrase needs more separation from the main sentence. (Example, other than that self-referential one: “And when you conclude that there are no gods, one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice — an end to extreme poverty, political disempowerment, government corruption, gross inequality in economic opportunity, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and more.”
Note to self: These dashes can often be replaced with periods or commas. If not, they can often be replaces with semi-colons or colons.
I also use dashes to insert a short phrase that needs to be separate from the rest of the sentence, but that’s too important to put into parentheses. (Example: “According to the genetic counselor, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that there are other genetic markers associated with Lynch Syndrome, ones that researchers don’t know about yet.”)
Note to self: Consider whether commas would be better. Consider whether parentheses would be better. Consider whether the phrase is even necessary, or could just be cut.
Other note to self: Try to limit dashes to no more than one use per paragraph.