Semicolons VS Dashes

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Semicolons VS Dashes

By

Connie Cockrell

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Copyright © 2014, Connie Cockrell, All Rights Reserved

 

It's inevitable. I give my manuscript over to my husband for a final copy edit and he changes all of my semicolons to dashes. Now we won't get into the argument here about using semicolons in our writing, that's another article.

So why change the semicolons to dashes? Should he even do that? Just when do you use a dash instead of a semicolon? Just when do you use a semicolon instead of a dash? I went to that wonderful resource, the Internet and typed in "How to use a semicolon."

The Writing Center link popped up, http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/GramPunct.html. There I found a great explanation for the use of semicolons. First up was the rule that a writer would use semicolons to connect closely related ideas. There were four ways this would occur.

The most common is to connect two independent clauses. Using my flash fiction story, The Djinn and the Orphan, I found this sentence. Emil shrank back; large men were usually mean. You can see from this example that both the first and second clauses could be stand alone sentences. However, because I wanted the second to relate to the first, I used a semicolon.

Next usage is to link clauses connected by conjuctive adverbs or transitional phrases to connect closely related ideas. English has many conjunctive adverbs, including: also, however, otherwise, consequently, indeed, similarly, finally, likewise, then, furthermore, moreover, therefore, hence, nevertheless, thus, nonetheless. I couldn't find an example from my own writing but this type of usage would look like this: Ian rode his bike to the park; however, once there, the bike rack was full so he had to chain his bike to a nearby tree.

Dashes can link lists where the items contain commas to avoid confusion between list items. I didn't have any in my stories but an example would be: Mary traveled to four European cities on her vacation: Rome, Italy; Munich, Germany; Paris, France; and London, England. You could use commas after the name of each country but that would be too confusing. The semicolons make the list clearer.

Link lengthy clauses or clauses with commas to avoid confusion between clauses. From another one of my stories I have the following sentence. They marched off and after an elevator ride and a walk along several corridors; they left him in a small conference room seated at a table facing the door. Both of these clauses are somewhat lengthy so I used a semicolon to link them together. It also gives the reader a chance to take a breath.

Having a handle on semicolons, let's look at dashes. I searched M-Dash and Dashes and got the same sites so the terms seem to be interchangeable, at least as far as usage definitions are concerned.
A dash is used to indicate sudden changes in tone or thought within a sentence. Here's an example: I've got a team out with heat sensors - the little buggers should show up on the scans but it's a big dock. The speaker is giving a status update to another person, then added a second thought to his first clause.

Dashes are also used to set off sentence elements. These can be used instead of parenthesis. I don't think I'd use this in fiction writing but here's an example. Julie smiled graciously at the annoying committee member - thinking, I could just punch her in the nose - and said, "Thank you for your assistance." A dash is also an indicator of the importance of the set off clause. As she left, Rory beamed, "The Admin party is a great idea. Not too formal, a nice location - great idea, Daniel."

Finally, The Writing Center indicates that dashes can be used to create emphasis, to connect ideas strongly to each other. Shaking his head, he replied, impatience colored his words. "They couldn't - they wore prosthetics. But that's not the point. He hasn't shut down the program." In this example the first and second clauses are related. The context indicates, they're strongly related to each other.
The other site I use was GrammarChecker at http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/dashes.asp. In addition to the same definitions used by The Writing Center, this site offered three other tips.

First, when using dashes, the words and phrases between dashes are generally not part of the subject. Second, dashes can be used to replace otherwise mandatory punctuation, such as commas. Third, some writers and publishers prefer spaces around dashes.

As you can see, dashes and semicolons are not interchangeable. They have their own grammatical uses. I hope this helps clear this little battle up for you. I'll have to give this to hubby to read.

 

Links Used in this article:
http://writing.wisc.edu/Handbook/GramPunct.html
http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/dashes.asp