Thinking About Punctuation: Semi-colons, Colons, and Dashes

Way of the Heathen
I’m working on my new book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life. I’ve been having thoughts and conversations about punctuation. And I want to share them and get feedback.

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.

Thoughts?

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPG
Coming Out Atheist
Bending
why are you atheists so angry
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

{advertisement}
Thinking About Punctuation: Semi-colons, Colons, and Dashes
{advertisement}
The Orbit is still fighting a SLAPP suit! Help defend freedom of speech, click here to find out more and donate!

14 thoughts on “Thinking About Punctuation: Semi-colons, Colons, and Dashes

  1. 1

    When I’m proofreading, depending on the author, I might warn them that I really love semi-colons and each time I use one is a decision they need to make, or, I might just put in my best effort to keep semi-colons out in all but lists.

    I think of colons as initiating a list but not for a subordinate clause. Your colon example (could stand alone as a sentence) would be a semi-colon, and your semi-colon example (could not stand alone as a sentence) would be another comma. I should look it up in the most common style guides; MLA and Chicago might have differing opions. (A quick Google: Purdue says semi-colons for independent clauses only; APA concurs.) For casual writing, you, the author, can make your own style guide as long as you communicate. I’ve also heard the rule that there is no wrong way to use a colon, but semi-colons have to be placed precisely.

    Comma use often depends on what I’ve been reading; if I’ve read a lot of works from the eighteenth-century recently, I’m likely to put in far more commas than is fashionable in twenty-first century literature.

    Dashes are a replacement for parentheses. What’s the best way to type a dash, and the best type of dash, in common word processors?

  2. 2

    Emu Sam,

    Typically, em-dashes are used in American English, without spaces on either side. In Word, these are typed as ctrl+alt+(numpad minus). In LaTeX, they are typed as — (three adjacent hyphens).

    En-dashes are used in British English (to set off what could be parenthetical phrases), with spaces on either side. In Word, these are typed as ctrl+(numpad minus). In LaTeX, they are typed as — (two adjacent hyphens).

  3. 3

    Lovely, practical, and succinct summary. Thank you.

    Came here just to note that dashes can work singly (separation, as in Greta’s example), or in pairs (parenthesis, as mentioned by Emu Sam and Miki Z). Typography of dashes seems mixed to me from what I read. Though I’d suggest that modern British English seldom deploys the pair of em-dashes without spaces. It seems … a tad formal.

  4. 6

    You may have stepped in it, Greta. In my experience, fundamentalist Christians are nothing in terms of dogmatism compared to punctuation pedants!

    Your second paragraph on semicolons is correct; your first one, however, is 180 degrees off. A semicolon is recommended when both the clauses before and after it are independent clauses.

    This source is usually considered fairly authoritative, but most grammar handbooks would agree:
    https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/566/01/

    Of course, it’s your book, so you; can; punctuate; it; any; way; you; feel: like.

  5. 7

    Greta Christina, I blame you for causing the following ear worm:

    Don’t you know, she’s thinking about punctuation
    It sounds like ellipsis
    Don’t you kno-o-ow, she’s thinking about punctuation
    It sounds like ellipsis

    (with thanks and apologies and some additional recrimination to Tracy Chapman)

  6. 8

    Don’t worry about that. Write the way you write, and let people read the way they read.

    But all paragraphs should be 140char or less.

    Hey, has anyone written a book in txtspeak/twitterblocks yet?? That might be an instant no-seller!

  7. 9

    As a software engineer who sometimes has to write documentation I would write:

    The commands with optional timeouts are: wait for memory change, wait for event, wait for message and wait for semaphore.

    Note the lack of comma near “and”. I ignore the free version of Grammarly when it thinks a comma is needed.

    Being a logical person the period following “and” follows the close quote because the period has nothing to do with what is quoted. However, not wishing to appear silly, I ignore my logic and would not write:

    When Bill heard the noise he said, “We should leave quickly.”.

    FWIW, as a tease I say I finally learned what a verb is when writing COBOL. It’s a word like “if” that means make a test.

  8. 10

    This is how I use colons and semi-colons. This is intended as descriptive, not prescriptive. You’re the published author. Do what you like. 🙂

    When I read a sentence and get to a full stop, my saccade fixates on the dot for an instance. My inner monologue pauses for a moment as my mind cognitively adjusts to the fact that the sentence just read has been completed. Then the cognitive momentum from reading the previous sentence takes over and topples me over into the next sentence. In this way the sentences flow together while still remaining apart. It feels a lot like jogging, stopping for a moment, taking a breath, and then continuing on at the same pace as before.

    Colons are full stops with another full stop above them. They’re like double-full-stops. When I get to a colon, my saccade fixates on the top dot, then the bottom one, then both together. My inner monologue doubles down on a longer pause. There’s a sense of building a small amount of tension, like compressing a spring. Then the spring releases, and the section immediately following the colon kicks in even harder. The momentum from the previous is stored and compressed: The release is more powerful for it. It feels more like jogging, stopping for a longer moment to get into position, then bursting forward into a run.

    Because of that, I always capitalize the clause following a colon. I think of the colon as a double-full-stop, so I follow the capitalization rules for full stops. You’ve done that everywhere above except in your actual example, so I presume that the latter was an oversight. 🙂

    A comma is a little bit like a full stop. The difference is that a full stop… stops. A comma doesn’t quite come to a halt. It’s a slowing down, then a speeding up, without actually coming to a complete halt.

    A semi-colon is a comma with a full stop on top of it. The full stop above the comma weighs the comma down, digs it in, makes it deeper, longer. It has a similar feel of tension building as a colon, but without the complete halt. It reminds me of doing high jump when I was in highschool. You run in to the bar and throw your momentum down into the jump. You build tension and then jump. But at no point do you actually stop moving.

    Because I see a semi-colon as a heavy comma, I treat it as such. I don’t capitalize the clause following a semi-colon.

    Just as examples of running and jumping require physical exertion, I find colons and semi-colons to require cognitive exertion. So I take care to make use of them sparingly. In small doses they add emphasis and flavor right where you want the reader to exert themselves, to make sure they’re actually paying attention and hitting hard on the clauses you want them to be hitting hard. But when overused they lose their impact and just become exhausting to read.

    Which is a problem for me, because left to my own natural devices I’ll over-use colons and semi-colons like a madman. 🙂

    And finally, because I can’t resist, I’ll throw in Lonely Island’s take on the subject. ^_^

  9. 11

    Trying to fix your writing so that it obeys existing rules is one thing; I don’t think it is necessarily worth it, because many rules are more or less created out of thin air by full-of-shit prescriptivists, but I totally understand the sentiment. After all, you need to know about the rules if you want to consciously decide whether and when you break them. Putting more thought into punctuation is great, and reporting on what you found out about how you generally use it is very interesting.

    However, I don’t agree at all with the idea that you should be working on making [your] use of them more consistent instead of just using whatever looks right. If it looks right, then it is right. If your use of punctuation is very inconsistent, then it won’t look right anyway. A rigid enforcement of consistency won’t bring any value, but it will artificially limit your expression.

    Punctuation is all about rythm and flow. There are (very general) rules, of course, but I don’t think it is a good idea to enforce a specific set of rules that you chose yourself. For instance, by restricting your use of semicolons to cases when the clause following it is not a complete sentence, you are missing out on a great tool to shape your flow of thought and convey your intent — for no good reason.

    I hope this comment does not come off as condescending! You are a better writer than I am (heck, I’m actually not a writer), and I’m not even a native English speaker. I thought I would give my opinion because (i) you asked for feedback, and (ii) I really like semicolons, and I want them to be FREE.

  10. 13

    I use a colon when the clause following it is a complete sentence.

    One analogy I’ve heard is that the part before the colon makes a promise: that something interesting is coming, or that a question will be answered, and the part after that delivers. In the example you used, “You didn’t decide to be an atheist: [etc]”, the colon means “and here’s how”.
    If, however, that sentence began with “You didn’t become an atheist overnight”, I’d use a period because the first part doesn’t make a promise to the reader.

  11. 14

    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?”)

    Hmm, I love semi-colons, but I’m not a fan of this usage or this example. I think semi-colons are best for showing that there’s an important bridge between two independent clauses. Here, I would actually find the sentence easier to parse if it were split in two:

    What could make you feel more important than believing that the creator of the entire universe cares passionately about you? After all, 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.

    Because really, the first portion of the sentence is a question and should have the question mark right away. The second part is the answer and flows better with the “after all.”

Comments are closed.