Breaking Down Semicolons & Em Dashes

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