Punctuation is one of those things that we tend to use intuitively, but sometimes our intuition is a bit off. Most people know when to use a period and when to use a question mark. But knowing when you should use a semicolon instead of a colon demonstrates that you take the craft of writing seriously, and is the sort of thing editors consider when selecting a piece for publishing.
With that said, let’s look at some particular punctuation that is often the cause of confusion.
A comma is used to indicate the smallest pause in a sentence, while a period indicates the longest pause and a semicolon falls somewhere in between. But when should you use a comma?
To separate elements, like nouns, adjectives, descriptive phrases, and lists.
- I planted tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, and beans in my garden.
To separate non-restrictive clauses, which are clauses that could be left out without affecting the sentence. Non-restrictive clauses are often introduced by the word which (while restrictive clauses are often introduced by that).
- The eggplants, which were almost ready to pick, had disappeared overnight.
To separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction.
- The squirrels laughed at me from the trees, but I vowed to have the last laugh.
To separate dependent clauses when the dependent clause comes before the main clause.
- When the cucumbers started to vanish, I nearly lost my mind.
To introduce something (exclamation, a phrase, direct address)
- Squirrels, this means war!
Finally, a brief word on the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), which is when you use a comma before the conjunction that joins the last two items in a list of three or more things. The serial comma’s job is to remove ambiguity and make your meaning crystal clear, which allows your reader to focus on your story instead of getting bogged down in trying to figure out what you meant.
A colon is used to introduce something to the reader. Its job is to direct the reader’s attention to what comes next. There are four general ways you should use a colon in your writing. The first is to introduce an element (or elements) related to the independent clause that precedes the colon.
- Mary finished packing her son’s suitcase: hopefully she hadn’t forgotten anything.
The second is to introduce an element or a series of elements after an introductory phrase, like as follows or the following.
- Mary had packed the following items: shorts, t-shirts, socks, underwear, and toiletries.
The third is to introduce speech or dialogue.
- Mary’s son yelled from downstairs: “Mom, the bus is here!”
The fourth is to identify the person being addressed in formal communication (e.g., a letter or an email).
- Dear Mom: I really miss you. Oh, and you forgot to pack my toothbrush.
A semicolon is used to link things that are related. There are two situations in which you should use semicolons. The first is to link two independent clauses. They can be two closely related thoughts:
- Tracy lay on her towel and closed her eyes; the angle of the sun was just perfect.
Or two clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs (however, also, consequently, etc.) or transitional phrases (as a result, for example, etc.):
- Tracy wanted to fall asleep; however, she was waiting for her piña colada to arrive.
The second way you can use a semicolon is to link items in a list when any of the items contain commas. In this case, semicolons are used to provide clarity.
- Since she’d arrived, Tracy had tried a Margarita, from Mexico; a Caipirinha, from Brazil; a Singapore Sling, from Singapore; and a Zombie, from the United States.
An em dash is a long dash, not to be confused with a hyphen, used to indicate a sudden break:
- “Allow me to demonstrate how sharp—ow, my finger!”
Or to indicate something that either explains or amplifies the element that precedes it, kind of like an aside.
- Neville—who was a knife salesman—fainted at the sight of his own blood.
That concludes my review on using punctuation. The rules above are not always hard and fast, especially when writing poetry or prose—but bending the rules should always be done mindfully.
The most important thing to remember when you use any of the elements above (or any other types of punctuation) is clarity. I can’t stress that enough. The rules are there to help you tell your story. Your use of punctuation should make the reader’s experience easier, not harder. When you sprinkle commas everywhere, or use semicolons with wild stylistic abandon, you aren’t helping anyone, least of all yourself.
This article was originally written as part of the 2014 yeah write summer series. I hope you enjoyed it!