Breaking Down Semicolons & Em Dashes

March 19, 2018

I have a weird love for bad 80s movies, Nicholas Cage, and The Semicolon.

 

It’s true: I actually have the Queen of Punctuation tattooed behind my ear (not for the reasons you probably think, as Project Semicolon didn’t start until after I got my tat)

 

 

 

So, as a freelance editor, and as a person who is known for their great big love of this punctuation mark, one of the most common questions I get is: “When do I use a semicolon, and can I use an em dash instead?”

 

Okay, so that was really two questions. Let’s take them one at a time and see if we can Electric Boogaloo our way outta this pickle.

 

 

 

 

(all examples below hail from my #WIP Rallied, lucky you!)

 

 

When do I use a semicolon?

 

Despite common misconception*, this isn’t for “when an author could have stopped the sentence but chose not to.”

 

I’m sorry, but that’s just not right. That’s a conjunction.

 

This is about marriage, which is why I got my semicolon tattoo in the first place.

 

  • The semicolon is there to join two independent statements that can stand on their own, but are stronger together.

 

 

The semicolon is the marriage of the two ideas.

 

Both parts of the sentence – before the semicolon, and after – can stand on their own.

 

The semicolon joins them into one.

 

 

 

She couldn’t be real; he couldn’t be seeing this.

 

Separate, they are as follows.

 

She couldn’t be real. He couldn’t be seeing this.

 

 

 

The best way to know if you need a semicolon is whether you can replace the comma with a period, and both parts can be their own sentence.

 

 

But it didn’t calm her temper, it didn’t quiet the rage at seeing her friend hurt and not being able to do anything.

[WRONG]

 

But it didn’t calm her temper. It didn’t quiet the rage at seeing her friend hurt and not being able to do anything.

[RIGHT]

 

But it didn’t calm her temper; it didn’t quiet the rage at seeing her friend hurt and not being able to do anything.

[RIGHT]

 

Not with her family’s curse, not after her brother.

[WRONG]

 

Not with her family’s curse. Not after her brother.

[RIGHT]

 

Not with her family’s curse; not after her brother.

[RIGHT]

 

 

  • Semicolons are the most elegant way of joining two thoughts.

 

 

 

Like a lavish wedding, or at the very least, an emotional exchange of vows. They help add an air of complexity when we use them to expand deeper upon an original idea.

 

 

Evan ground her teeth at the thought, then turned onto an unmarked private road, her legs flexing as she hit and released the pedals in a dance that was everything about who she was; the religion she was born into, long before it baptized her in the blood of those she loved.

 

 

  • They are also used to separate items in a series, when the series items require a comma:

 

It was clear who he used to be: the clean trim of his sculpted beard; his hipster styled hair that was cut short on the sides and perfectly coiffed on top; clothes cut tantalizingly close to his muscles, and almost defiantly.

 

(If we had used a comma to separate the series, it would’ve been too confusing since I need a comma in the last section of “close to his muscles, and almost defiantly.” We wouldn’t have been able to tell where the series enders were.)

 

 

 

Then what’s the point of an em dash?

 

 

I know.

 

It seems kinda like the semicolon . . . takes care of it all for us. But the em dash still has an important place in our manuscripts, and our hearts.

 

  • Like the semicolon, the em dash joins two separate ideas together.  

 

It took him a minute to respond, because there was something in her voice that made him believe she really didn’t mean it as an insultto keep his feelings to himself.

[RIGHT]

 

It took him a minute to respond, because there was something in her voice that made him believe she really didn’t mean it as an insult. To keep his feelings to himself.

[RIGHT]

 

It took him a minute to respond, because there was something in her voice that made him believe she really didn’t mean it as an insult, to keep his feelings to himself.

[WRONG]

 

 

  • It is used to expand upon the original idea.

 

So he found another wayhe’d go out camping with his buddies, putting together weekend trips spent hiking and kayaking.

[RIGHT]

 

So he found another way. He’d go out camping with his buddies, putting together weekend trips spent hiking and kayaking.

[RIGHT]

 

So he found another way, he’d go out camping with his buddies, putting together weekend trips spent hiking and kayaking.

[WRONG]

 

 

  • It is also used as an indicator of an aside

 

Tommy set the iced tea on the bar before garnishing it with alime?followed by the finished vodka drink.

 

 

That's nice, Katie. But when do I use a semicolon, and when do I use an em dash? And are they interchangeable?

 

Ehhhh . . . kinda?

 

 

 

Semicolons and em dashes both are used to expand upon on an original idea, and both join two things that were okay on their own, but stronger together.

 

So why use one versus the other, and when do you use which?

 

It all

comes down

to

Style

 

 

I’m dead serious. One is not more right, it’s just a subjective situational decision. Per usage opportunity.

 

Remember me saying earlier how the semicolon was the elegant joining, the marriage, with vows and tears and tulle and chicken or fish?

 

The em dash is not elegant.

 

The em dash is fierce.

 

The em dash is the person who bursts through the double doors during “speak now or forever hold your peace” and the em dash is NOT HOLDING ITS PEACE.

 

 

It is extra voice. Punch. And the only way to know which one to use is to try both and decide.

 

 

 

She turned and walked awayno closer to knowing what she was going to do, and pissed off to all hell about it.

 

VS

 

She turned and walked away; no closer to knowing what she was going to do, and pissed off to all hell about it.

 

 

Is one right and one wrong?

 

No.

 

I just think the first is stronger.

 

 

 

Evan ground her teeth at the thought, then turned onto an unmarked private road, her legs flexing as she hit and released the pedals in a dance that was everything about who she wasthe religion she was born into, long before it baptized her in the blood of those she loved.

 

VS

 

Evan ground her teeth at the thought, then turned onto an unmarked private road, her legs flexing as she hit