Tag Archives: punctuation

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Everyone’s got a favorite punctuation mark. As for me, I like the em dash. Seems like I often have something extra to say at the end of a sentence or find myself wanting to interject a thought between thoughts. I’ve got options, of course, but the em dash usually grabs my attention first. Em dashes are simple and clean, easy to type, and extremely versatile. They also make my writing flow the best. But take my advice: there are tricks to using the em dash effectively, and getting to know the ins and outs of this functionally fun punctuation mark is worth the effort if you want it to improve your writing.

What is the Em Dash?

The em dash is a dash that’s about as long as the letter m. Don’t mistake it with the en dash, which is shorter and typically used between numbers, dates, and times. It’s also not the same as a hyphen, the shortest dash and the one used in compound words.

While the em dash is often referred to as the long dash, it's a great way to bring tightness and focus to your sentences.

When is the Em Dash Appropriate?

If you’ve got an important detail you want to highlight or you want to show a sudden break in thought, the em dash may be just the ticket: Sarah decided to return the white dress—she never planned to keep it anyway—after her mother commented on how pale she looked.

It also works when adding a final thought: Eating healthy and staying fit and strong will improve your overall well-being—and keep you young at heart.

You might also use an em dash to set off an introductory series of nouns: Patience, empathy, and kindness—those were the virtues she preached the most.

Finally, em dashes make reading a sentence with other punctuation easier on the eyes: Fruits, vegetables, and protein—especially strawberries, cauliflower, and fish—are among her favorites.

Dos and Don’ts for Using the Em Dash

The em dash has a place in your writing, but it’s not always the right mark to use. Keep these dos and don’ts in mind:

  • Do place the em dashes in the right spot. When used with an interjected idea, put dashes on either side. When used for a final thought, place the em dash directly before the thought.
  • Do watch your spacing. Em dashes don’t need spaces between letters. Make them look neat on the page.
  • Don’t use the em dash if parentheses or commas make more sense; for example, when a detail is minor and doesn’t need amplification.
  • Don’t precede an em dash with a comma, colon, semicolon, or period. You may use a question mark or exclamation point, though: He made it on time—thank goodness!—and the meeting was a success.
  • Don’t overuse the em dash. If your entire page is filled with them, they backfire and become hard on the eyes. Place them sparingly throughout a piece of writing. And never use two or more em dash clauses in the same sentence

Got a propensity for the em dash? Me too. Use it appropriately and intermittently and make the mark work to your advantage.

 

 

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Semicolons get a bad rap for being a punctuation mark that’s outdated, pointless, and confusing to use. But many of those arguments have no merit. In fact, semicolons can serve an important purpose in writing, no matter what it is. Knowing how to place semicolons in the right spot for the right reason, though, is key, and can make this underrated punctuation mark a writing tool worth your time and attention.

Here are five things you need to know about semicolons. Use them mindfully, and see why there’s nothing semi about them.

They’re Effective for Emphasis

If you want to emphasize your point by reinforcing it with a similar thought, the semicolon can help you out. For example, “She never works late; only a crisis would keep her at the office past five.”

They’re Best When Not Noticed

Don’t let the semicolon stand out and distract the reader. Instead, slip it in where it won’t be noticed. Too many semicolons are noticeable. Just one strategically placed within a paragraph on a page is all you need for a subtle break from the usual punctuation.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Period

Semicolons can often be replaced by periods, but sometimes a semicolon is a better choice. If the sentence needs splitting up but doesn’t make two different points, try the semicolon. It might be just the connector you need.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Comma

That’s especially true for complex lists—like those that already include commas. Example: She did three things this morning: read the paper; planned her trip to Washington, DC; and made a yogurt, berry, and granola parfait. Choose semicolons over commas with transitional adverbs, too: She knows how to knit; however, she only learned the skill yesterday.

They’re Nothing to Fear

Don’t be afraid of semicolons. They won’t make you look like an amateur. In fact, semicolons are completely acceptable and even a good thing when used properly. Practice using the semicolon and get comfortable with it. You’ve got nothing to lose, other than your fear.

If you’ve wondered whether you should use a semicolon, wonder no more. It’s a useful punctuation mark that’s full of value and function. Go ahead and get on the semicolon bandwagon; just be wise with it for the most impact.

Image by SpeedyGonsales

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grammar

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of writing with—what seems to me—misplaced commas used with conjunctions. Granted, most of these sightings appear on social media, where grammar and punctuation apparently don’t matter much. Still, it made me wonder whether the rules surrounding commas and conjunctions are starting to bend a little, even in professional writing. True to form, I got right on it, researching what other writers and grammar gurus think.

What I discovered wasn’t surprising: everyone has an opinion. What I gleaned, though, is that the rules for using commas with conjunctions aren’t hard and fast today. In fact, there are times when they don’t make good writing sense. Check out which old rules still apply and which appear to have moved on:

Commas/conjunctions with independent clauses:

Example: John decided to travel to Europe in the spring, but he wanted to keep his plans a secret.

  • Old rule: The comma precedes the conjunction when two independent clauses are separated by a conjunction.
  • New rule: Still the same, but some authorities say it’s okay, even recommended, to leave off the commas for very short clauses if no confusion results.

Commas/conjunctions with independent clauses that contain parenthetical or descriptive phrases:

Example: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday, and, given her knack for procrastinating, she might not get back to you until Monday.

  • Old rule: A comma should separate two independent clauses as well as set off descriptive phrases from the rest of the sentence.
  • New rule: Although the above example is still technically correct, three commas so close together makes the sentence look cluttered. One solution is to remove the comma before the conjunction, along with the second she, so that you no longer have two independent clauses: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday and, given her knack for procrastinating, might not get back to you until Monday. Another option is to substitute a semicolon for the comma after the first independent clause: She wouldn’t have an answer until Friday; and, given her knack for procrastinating, she might not get back to you until Monday.

Commas/conjunctions without independent clauses:

Example: He didn’t ask any questions or raise any concerns.

  • Old rule: No comma before or after the conjunction.
  • New rule: Still the same. For long sentences where a pause becomes necessary, place a comma before the conjunction.

Commas/conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence:

Example: I didn’t get the job. So what do I do now?

  • Old rule: No comma is necessary.
  • New rule: A comma after the conjunction is useful to show a pause or a lingering of thought, if that’s the writer’s intent.

To sum up, commas usually still have a place beside conjunctions, though not always in the spot you might think. Of course, my theory on commas remains unchanged: don’t use them if you don’t have to. It’ll make your writing cleaner and smoother. Best advice? When using commas, use good judgment.

For more information on commas, check out my blog post For the Love of Commas, Don’t Overuse Them.