Writing Tips

Punctuation and Numbers

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Ticks on a Dog's Belly

Rules for Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes

I didn’t say that; writer Donald Barthelme did, describing semicolons. A grammarian piled on: “Good writers are decisive and stay away from semicolons.” But Lynne Truss, who wrote Eats, Shoots & Leaves, called those who would denounce the semicolon “pompous sillies.” I can’t improve on that.

My favorite explanation of semicolons comes from Lewis Thomas, who won the National Book Award in 1974 for The Lives of a Cell: “With a semicolon there you get a pleasant feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”

Many of us use too few semicolons and colons, even em dashes, because we’re afraid of them; we don’t know when to use them. Here’s the simple version: use semicolons to continue a point; colons to set up a point; and em dashes as a parenthetical aside–often with a little bite. The details:

Use semicolons:

between independent clauses: I love Maui; there’s no place I’d rather be.

between items in a series where commas appear among the items: In a single day, you can watch the sun rise from the top of Mt. Haleakala; snorkel among eels, urchins, and parrotfish; and in the evening watch gray whales migrating north.

where related information follows: In the morning, I breakfast on papaya and mango; in the evening, I grill fish basted with guava and lime.

Use colons:

to set up information: One thing about Maui I love above all others: snorkeling hundreds of yards offshore, lost among the reefs.

to introduce a bit of drama: In the water you are an intruder on foreign soil; never was I so aware of that than early one morning as I rounded a volcanic outcropping: slowly in circles above her "nursery" swam a hammerhead shark.

Use dashes:

as an aside to speak more directly to your reader; but try a colon or semicolon first; save the em dash for a sharp stop (see Tips Emenem, Parts I, II, and III for a fuller discussion of of "dashes"): I stopped–paddling and breathing–she was longer than I am–and hoped she was not as nearsighted as most sharks who might mistake me for a flailing Hershey's Kiss.

A good writer uses colons, semicolons, and em dashes to make a reader read the words the way the writer wants them read. Here are some of the best to show you how:

“Jim had plenty of corn-cob pipes and tobacco; so we had a right down good sociable time; then we crawled out through the hole . . . .” Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“I asked Dad why he kept laughing . . . . And Dad said, Because I was praying this morning; and I prayed Lord, send Davy home to us; or if not, Lord, do this: Send us to Davy.” Leif Enger – Peace Like a River

“. . . . after our meal Jem and I were settling down to a routine evening, when Atticus did something that interested us: he came into the living room carrying a long electrical extension cord.” Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

“The only way Inman could figure it, the men must have framed the evening in their minds as a type of coon hunt, as sport; otherwise they would have long since gone back to town.” Charles Frazier – Cold Mountain

“Diplomacy, he was fond of saying, is the art of persuasion; and war–never citing his source–is simply diplomacy continued through other means.” Tim O’Brien – Going after Cacciato

No ticks here. Don’t clutter your writing with colons, semicolons, and em dashes; but don’t be afraid to use them to set up, explain further, or control your reader’s eye.

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.

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