Ask the Grammarian: Missing Semi-colons, Distinguishing Dashes, and Punctuating Quotations

Thank you to everyone that submitted questions. Let’s get started:

Is the Semi-colon Semi-Retired?

Tom asks:

What happened to the semicolon? Has it been replaced by the comma?

The semi-colon, indeed, still exists, though I assume that many writers avoid using it because they don’t know how to use it. Let’s quickly refresh our memories.

A semi-colon (;) can be used to connect two independent clauses without using a coordinating conjunction like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. An independent clause is a clause that can stand alone as its own sentence or be connected to other independent or dependent clauses. (See my LitReactor article Clause I Said So: A Refresher Course On Sentence Types if you’d like a more detailed explanation.)

Truth be told, the semi-colon can be replaced by either a period or a comma + coordinating conjunction combo. This is why a semi-colon is made up of a period and a comma, because it can do the work of both. And yet, the semi-colon does create its own nuance of meaning. Consider the following examples:

  • The Sasquatch appeared suddenly on the trail. It was running straight toward us! (separated by a period)
  • The Sasquatch appeared suddenly on the trail, and it was running straight toward us! (separated by a comma + coordinating conjunction combo)
  • The Sasquatch appeared suddenly on the trail; it was running straight toward us! (separated by a semi-colon)

Each example is grammatically sound and thematically interesting; however, the first example puts a little too much separation between the two events—the appearance of the ‘squatch and its running toward the narrator. The second example makes it seem as if the narrator already knew it was going to happen. The flow between sentences is a little too smooth. In the third example, the semi-colon allows the two ideas to be inextricably linked while maintaining the tone of surprise from the appearance of the beast to the subsequent realization that it was heading right toward the speaker.

The semi-colon is actually one of the least complicated punctuation marks, so it’s interesting that it inspires such confusion. It really only has the one use, but, because you can use a period or a comma + conjunction combo, most writers might not find it necessary. I find it extremely useful in connecting sentences (and the ideas within those sentences) without adding extra words and while still making the point that the two ideas are inseparable thematically even if they are separable grammatically.

A Dash of This, a Hyphen of That

LitReactor member Postpomo asks:

Em dash vs en dash vs hyphen—I  can never keep those straight.

Also, is the adverb being replaced by the adjective? I hear it often enough in such phrases as "He starts slow," or "She did good," etc...

Let me answer the second question first: No, it has not been replaced. Rather, it’s a victim of the slow movement toward more and more linguistic economy (even at the expense of accuracy) that seems to run parallel with all the rest of the shortening and contracting that marks our particular time in history. I suspect the lack of proper adverbs is really just grammatical laziness or ignorance or part of the detrimental domino effect that occurs when something is erroneously published and people just assume that it’s correct and follow suit. I admit that I occasionally make such errors even though I know better. I hear it said the wrong way, and it gets stuck in my head like a bad 80’s rock ballad.

Ok, now let’s talk about the differences between those little lines.

Hyphen (-)

The hyphen is the shortest of the three and is primarily used to link words together to create a single word. The hyphen is very similar to the en dash in size and look, but it is completely different in its use. It strings two or more words together to create a single compound word. Often the two words connected are nouns that are being used as an adjective. Here are some common expressions that use a hyphen.

  • Cat-like reflexes
  • Sixteenth-century artists
  • A room full of ten-year-olds
  • Mother-in-law

These days, usage of some originally hyphenated expressions such as e-mail and hyper-link have been shortened to a single word to facilitate easy usage. Since usage is always evolving, consult your favorite style guide if you are unsure if a particular expression has been shortened.

When used to connect nouns to form an adjective, it is important to remember to be completely clear about the words you are connecting and the meaning it conveys. Consider this example from the Grammar Monkeys Blog for The Wichita Eagle:

Hazardous-materials training is not the same as hazardous materials training.

The first example is clear—it is training for dealing with hazardous materials. The second example could imply that training for dealing with some kind of material is dangerous. Clarity is the key for using hyphens correctly and efficiently. (For more great examples, subscribe to The Wichita Eagle’s Twitter feed @GrammarMonkeys, and read their blog entry called Why We Need Hyphens.)

En dash (–)

The en dash is so named because (traditionally) it takes up the typographical space of a lowercase letter n. That little detail, however, does little to help you remember how to use it, and with modern word processing, it may not be exactly true anymore. Suffice it to say that the en dash is longer than the hyphen but shorter than the em dash.

The en dash is the most utilitarian of the dash family in that it is primarily used to represent the word ­to­ in expressions about time or breadth. For example:

  • The first semester runs September – December. (Spoken as “September to December”).
  • The average cost of an entrée is $10 – $15. (Spoken as “ten to fifteen dollars”).
  • The Giants won the game, 21 –10. (Spoken as “twenty-one to ten”).

Em dash (—)

The em dash is the longest of the three, and it is named thus because it takes up the typographical space of a lowercase letter m. The em dash often takes the jobs of the comma, parentheses, semi-colons, or colons—but in informal writing only. Formal writing uses few dashes because they may be misinterpreted, thus traditional punctuation is preferred.

In informal writing, em dashes can be a fun way to create emphasis, interrupt, signal an abrupt change of thought, add parenthetical or nonessential information, or even set off dialogue. Here are a few possible examples of how to use the em dash.

  • Can you please call Jessica—the tall Jessica—before you leave today?
  • I have been waiting for three—make that four—hours for you to call me.
  • Sarah knew she couldn’t take the job even though she wanted it—it just didn’t pay enough!
  •     —What do you want for lunch, Frank?

—Hmm, I think Thai food would be good. What do you think?

—Yeah, I’m all for it. Let’s go.

If you want some other examples of how to use em dashes, check out my LitReactor articles Sentence, INTERRUPTED! - Five Ways to Interrupt Yourself (Grammatically) and Talk It Out: How To Punctuate Dialogue In Your Prose.

Mark then Quote? Or Quote then Mark?

Saskia Thibodeau asks:

Does punctuation go inside or outside quotation marks, and why?

Generally speaking, the punctuation will go inside the quotation marks. My college English professor explained it to me by saying that you didn’t want it dangling alone at the end of the sentence. This is a nice sentiment, but it’s not entirely true. Like most grammar rules, it depends on context.

In typical dialogue, the punctuation should appear inside the quotation marks because it is part of the quoted material. For example:

  •     Saskia said, “I’m never eating at that restaurant again!”

“Why not?” asked Taylor, “I thought it was pretty good.”

In the above example, the punctuation is part of the dialogue between Saskia and Taylor, so the punctuation appears within the quotation marks.

However, if you are using quotation marks to show material that you are quoting but you are not quoting entire sentences, the punctuation should go with the main sentence and be placed outside of the quotation marks. For example:

  • Saskia told me restaurant was terrible, but Taylor thought it was “pretty good”.

In this example, the punctuation belongs with the main sentence not the quoted part. I realize it’s hard to decipher this since there was a period at the end of Taylor’s statement, but consider if the main sentence was using Taylor’s quote but with a different punctuation type.

  • Saskia told me the restaurant was terrible, but didn’t Taylor think it was “pretty good”?

The question mark is not part of the original quote; it is part of the main sentence, so it appears after the quotation marks.

As with most grammar rules, you need to think more about what you are trying to communicate than whether or not you are following a particular rule. It’s hard to remember this because we are taught a series of “rules” in school, but they are actually just guidelines. This is a perfect example of two very common usages, but the “rule” that is taught does nothing to explain the exceptions.

Thanks, again, everyone! I loved these questions!

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things November 17, 2013 - 2:18pm

Hey there, word nerd. I don't know if you've covered this yet, but how about possession on names ending with S? My character's name is Jonas, and while I learned that it should be Jonas' cat, the internet seems to think that Jonas's cat is also acceptable, even though it looks ridiculous when written in cursive. Any thoughts?

Tina Winograd's picture
Tina Winograd November 3, 2015 - 10:03am

Taylor, thanks for writing this piece. It's a great reference.

But I did notice one of your sections (last section) is opposite of what cmos says, I believe. The period goes inside quotes even if it's just a word in the quotes.

Copied from cmos: Growing up, we always preferred to “bear those ills we have.”

Punctuation section 6.9 cmos