Equally important to the words writers choose is punctuation. Punctuation tells readers when to pause, when to question, and when to add excitement. It separates and organizes. It tells us which information is important and which is just an aside. Most people—I’d like to believe—know how to use the basics: periods, question marks, exclamation points, and commas. Okay, maybe not commas so much. But today I’m going to teach you how to use more challenging punctuation, namely the em dash, the semicolon, and the colon.
Let’s start with my personal favorite, the em dash. An em dash is not a hyphen. It is, conveniently, the length of an m. Most programs like Word will automatically turn two hyphens into an em dash. While em dashes may be similar in use to commas and parentheses, they are not always interchangeable. They should be used for emphasis, an interruption, or a change of thought. Example: I’m finished with this s’mores waffle—too sweet! Em dashes are beautiful when used correctly, but too many becomes tiresome to read.
Semicolons are another tricky little mark that shouldn’t be used too often. Semicolons separate two main clauses that are closely related. A main clause can stand alone as a sentence, and many times a sentence with a semicolon should really just be written as two separate sentences. A good example of correct usage comes from Grammar Girl: “I have a big test tomorrow; I can’t go out tonight.” The trick is to have the meaning of the main clauses dependent on each other. The following example should be separated into two sentences because there isn’t a relation at all: “English is my fifth period class; I can’t go out tonight.” Semicolons have other uses, but I’ll leave that for another post.
And finally we come to colons—not nearly as tricky. See what I did there? Besides being used before a list of items, colons are used to signify that what comes after them are directly related to the previous sentence. Only use colons after statements that are complete sentences. For example, “I have two favorite beer styles: stouts and IPAs.” Another example, “The Supreme Court ruled on DOMA today: They deemed it unconstitutional.” Capitalizing the first word after the colon is actually a style choice.