Whenever I solicit grammar questions from an audience, many of the questions relate to punctuation. Punctuation is a crucial part of good writing. It tells us where to stop, where to pause, and it marks off the exact words someone is saying. But it does so much more than that. Judicious and correct use of punctuation can add spice to your writing.
In speech, we don’t need to pay attention to what punctuation mark is being used. We hear a stop or we hear a pause. We assume periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points from what we hear. In writing, however, we have the chance to use a host of punctuation marks to add variety and clarity.
Some punctuation marks are overused, especially in more informal writing. For example, some writers love to use dashes (—) and ellipses (. . .) for just about any purpose. On the flip side, many people shy away from using punctuation, like the semicolon, at all, or they think that the colon and semicolon must be closely related or interchangeable.
Each punctuation mark has a specific function in writing, and usually the marks are not interchangeable, particularly (1) colons and semicolons and (2) dashes and ellipses.
Semicolons are completely different from colons. In fact, they are not even siblings. Maybe they could be considered distant cousins. If you are reluctant to use semicolons, fear not. Semicolons are pretty straightforward and have only two uses:
- Semicolons can separate two closely related sentences as an alternative to using a period and a new sentence, or as a conjunction and a comma.
Last year I took a trip to Europe; this summer I am planning a cruise to Alaska.
- Semicolons come in handy to separate items in confusing series, where there may already be commas. For example, in the following sentence it is difficult to figure out how many people are named in the series:
Please say hello to Ms. Waters, the mayor, Warren Bates, the chief of police, Cynthia Flagg, the city council president, and the fire chief.Semicolons make the sentence more understandable. We can see that there are five people in the series:
Please say hello to Ms. Waters, the mayor; Warren Bates, the chief of police; Cynthia Flagg, the city council president; and the fire chief.
Colons are the mark of “expectation,” and can generally not be replaced with semicolons. Colons can introduce a quote, a list (vertical or horizontal), or an explanation, and can separate two sentences when the second is a result of or follows from the first.
- At this morning’s meeting, the company president said these unfortunate words: “We are closing some of our retail stores, and there will be layoffs.”
- Mix together these ingredients: sugar, flour, baking soda and cocoa. (Incorrect use of colon.)
Do not use a colon after a sentence fragment, as in the second sentence. Putting a colon after together breaks the flow of the sentence because mix together is a fragment, and the rest of the words complete the sentence.
- There is an important meeting this morning: layoffs will be discussed.
You could separate these sentences with a period or a semicolon, but because the second sentence follows the first, a colon works. This is the one place where a colon and a semicolon might sometimes be interchangeable.
- Mix the following ingredients together:
Vertical lists are treated the same way as horizontal lists.
- Julie Baylor: President
Frank Simms: Vice-President
David Trueblood: Treasurer
Colons are often used in lists where an explanation follows the colon (and between the title and subtitle of a book if you are writing it in text.) These uses are still anticipatory, where the words after the colon result from the words before the colon.
Ellipses indicate that something is omitted. They are not interchangeable with em dashes (the long dashes), which indicate a break in thought.
Ellipses contain three dots, usually separated by spaces. If the ellipsis comes at the end of a completed sentence, the sentence punctuation is included, whether it is a period, question mark, or exclamation point. However, to indicate trailing off, there are just three dots.
- She said, “I thought I was being followed, but then . . . ” (trailing off)
- “He is very tall . . . . He towers over me. (Here, words that finish a sentence are left out, for example, “He is very tall and really skinny. He towers over me.”)
Em dashes are often used in handwritten memos to separate sentences, but their correct use is to indicate a break in thought:
- I thought I would never find the dog—he had never been missing that long— but there he was in the neighbors’ garage!
- Dashes are also used to indicate an interruption in dialog:“I told you I didn’t want to discuss th—” “It needs to be talked about now!”
Never underestimate the power of a well-used piece of punctuation!
Arlene Miller, The Grammar Diva, is the bestselling Amazon author of eight grammar books and a novel. She is also a copyeditor, blogger, and former English teacher. Arlene has been a featured speaker at the Sonoma County (CA) Book Festival, Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA), Sonoma County Library, Romance Writers of America, College of Marin, Napa Valley (CA) Writers, Copperfield’s bookstore, KGO (San Francisco) radio, and other groups. She holds degrees in Print Media, English, Humanities, and teaching/school administration. Find The Grammar Diva and her blog at www.bigwords101.com.