Tag Archives: grammar

Writing is Fun; I Like to Write About Science! (a lesson on semicolons)


After my post about em dashes, a friend of mine suggested I write a post about semicolons. Those little buggers can be tricky. Since I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to write about this week, I thought I would go with my friend’s idea instead. I must give a tip of the hat to Mrs. Fala.

I happen to love punctuation. The fact that it can be used in so many ways makes me happy. There are some classic conventions, but if you know what you’re doing . . . you can get away with some amazing things. Writing about punctuation makes me smile. Talking about it also makes me grin; I know this makes me a writing geek, and I’m okay with that.

Back to semicolons! At one point in my school career, I took a Critical Theory class. The class was taught by a grad student with grand aspirations. Instead of inspiring us, she came off as a waspy, self-obsessed, pain-in-the-neck. Not only that, but she thought science was icky. Needless to say, she and I didn’t get along. I definitely pushed the envelop with her, and wrote a few really fun essays; including an essay with the thesis statement, Dinosaurs are Rad! I got to write about the velocirapture, so the class wasn’t a total waste.

She often called on her students to give examples of grammar and punctuation. I couldn’t tell if it was because she didn’t know, or because she liked to think we were idiots and we didn’t know. Keep this in mind; it was a three hundred level class, where one would hope that the students had a general grasp of the English language. One day she called on me. The conversation went thusly:

“Dylan, can you give us a sentence using a semicolon?” She asked.

“The house was made of logs; the dog was outside.” (It was the first thing I could think of on short notice.) I answered.

“Those two things don’t have anything to do with each other, so that isn’t a good example.” She responded, trying to negate the validity of my sentence.

“They do if you’re reading Old Yeller.” I shot back.

So, what does this teach us, other than the fact that I can be a bit of a pain-in-the-neck myself? I think, it teaches us that perception is everything. Sometimes sentences that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other should be connected with a semicolon. They want to snuggle. They want to give life to your prose.

Therein lies the crux of the semicolon; the semicolon snuggles up ideas. You use one when you have a complete sentence, but you just aren’t ready for it to end. In even simpler terms, you use a semicolon to connect two complete, compatible sentences to form one longer sentence to get at what you really want to say. When a comma isn’t enough, and a period is too much—go with a semicolon.

Thanks for reading, please share.

To Em Dash or Not to Em Dash?

2-dashesUsing an em dash, or not, came up after my last post. I had decided to use an em dash to add a splashy effect, because I think em dashes are neat and under-used (at least correctly). My darling husband, had the opposite view point.

Historically, em dashes are used for emphasis—or interruption—in a sentence. They are used to make a point. The name ’em dash’ comes from the fact that the dash is the length of the letter M. Whereas the en dash is the length of the letter N, and a hyphen is the shortest of them all. (See the above graphic.)

An em dash should be used with no spaces between it and the word(s) that it modifies. The em dash can be used in pairs: He was looking for treasure—buried treasure—along the coastline. Or on their own: He finally found what he was looking for, a chest buried in the sand—it might contain enough gold to raise a fleet! (I like pirates.) Just make sure you use them in the appropriate setting, or people will get fussy.

There are many people out there that hate the em dash. I agree that it has been, and can be, over used, and there are many people out there that don’t know how to use it correctly and place the little buggers willy-nilly throughout their text. I think, with the proper usage, they can be a highly effective tool to enhance your writing. Plus, they look cool.

One of the many problems with em dashes, is the fact that they are old fashioned. There isn’t a em dash key on modern keyboards, in fact, people used to use two hyphens in a row instead of an em dash. I don’t know if there has ever been a key specific to our little em. It is easy to get around this. Most Word programs will automatically change a double hyphen into an em dash, and if you are a Mac user, there is a short cut: SHIFT, OPTION, and MINUS key. Voila! Em dash. For PC users, it’s ALT+0151.

There are many famous authors who love the em dash, and there are many famous grammarians who hate it. In my opinion, both points of view are valid. Just remember, use it sparingly, use it for emphasis, or interruption, and find your own writing voice.

Thanks for reading, and please share.