Skip to main content

Grammar Police Monday - A Dash'll Do Ya

Today I'm going to cover some less common marks of punctuation as it relates to writing fiction, mainly dashes, parentheses & semicolons.You may have occasion to use these, but you'll want to use them properly and sparingly. Why? Because improper use and overuse can pull the reader out of your storysomething you should avoid.

Before I discuss proper use of the marks I mentioned above, let's cover the issue of overuse. As with many other details in fiction (e.g. repetitive words and phrases), less common marks of punctuation should be used sparingly. If not, they will lose their effectiveness and possibly become an irritant to the reader.  

Take the exclamation point, for example. Your sentence structure and dialogue should be strong enough that you rarely need one. Occasionally you might, but keep its use to a minimum. And, although I can't find a reference to back me up at the moment, I've been told not to use both a question mark and an exclamation mark together. Choose one or the other, even if the sentence is interrogative.

Let's move on to dashes. A dash is different than a hyphen, and there are two kinds of dashes: en dashes and em dashes. Just like their names, en dashes are about the width of the letter 'n,' and em dashes are about the width of an 'm.' (Check instructions for your operating system and specific word processor version to find out how to make these. Try this as a starting point for MS Word.) In this post, I'm discussing the em dash.

Em dashes are typically typed with no spaces on either side. My word processor will make one automatically if I type a word followed by two hyphens, followed by another word, and then hit the space bar. Suddenly the two hyphens become one long dash. Viola! Em dashes can replace commas, semicolons and colons to add emphasis and or indicate interruption or an abrupt change of thought.

Ex: Ben was the manthe only manshe wanted in her life.
Ex: "Come help me open–never mind."

Em dashes are also used to show an abrupt stop in dialogue, typically an interruption.

Ex: "Jenny, I love y
      "No you don't. If you loved me, you wouldn't treat me like this."

Some references say em dashes can replace parentheses, but I disagree. Parentheses also set off information that clarifies or is an aside, but they do so quietly, not with added emphasis. My mom told me something that has stuck with me through the years. 'Surrounding something with parentheses is like cupping your hands and whispering the words. Surrounding the same thing by em dashes is like holding your arms out and shouting it.'

Now do you see why the overuse of either one can grow irritating after a while?

On to the semicolon... It has many uses, but I'm going to focus on the ones seen most often in fiction. (This is the best reference I've found so far.) A semicolon is typically used to join closely related clauses when a comma isn't appropriate, or when the two clauses are already lengthy and or contain commas.

Ex: Cindy hugged her pillow and cried; she always cried.

Ex: After her boyfriend left, Cindy hugged her pillow and cried; but she didn't change her mind, and she didn't call him to reconcile

If you're trying to keep your writing tight, you'll probably want to break up long sentences, but there are times when a semicolon can be useful. One can be substituted in place of a comma+coordinating conjunction. Sometimes when a writer commits the dreaded comma splice (the error of joining to independent clauses with only a comma), a semicolon might have worked instead.  

Reminder: An independent clause is one that has a subject and a predicate and can stand alone. 

Comma splice: John is a lawyer, he is also a writer.
Correct: John is a lawyer; he is also a writer
Also correct: John is a lawyer, and he is also a writer.
And a third option: John is a lawyer. He is also a writer.

I hope you've found this lesson helpful. If there are topics you'd like me to cover in the future, let me know. :)


  1. I am the comma splicing QUEEN! Oh, yeah. All hail the queen! Thankfully I have an awesome crit partner who ruthlessly catches each one. (Those I swore to myself-once again-weren't in there.)

    1. Ha! Oh, I don't know. One of my crit partners might challenge you for that title. LOL We all have our weaknesses as writers. Thank goodness for crit partners and beta readers! :D
      Thanks for stopping by. :)

  2. You know I love me some em dashes! ♥

    P.S. Let's make the interrobang popular. We can do that, right‽ *Grins*

    1. I do, too. I really have to rein it in. (You should see my mss before the first editing pass. LOL)


      Hehehe - had to look that up.
      Um. Let's not and say we did. :P

  3. Melissa~

    I used to be a grammar nut. But it's been about a dozen years since my last grammar class, and I'm losing my touch. I tend to put commas everywhere these days. Except between independent clauses. My high school English teacher beat that one out of me completely.

    I love parentheses. I use them for digressions a lot.

    I also use em dashes to set off an interruption. I interrupt myself a lot in my mind, so those em dashes come in handy.

    I like the distinction your mother made about whispering or shouting. I think parentheses and em dashes could enclose the very same information, but the emphasis changes depending on how you set it off.

    1. "My high school English teacher beat that one out of me completely."

      My mom is a retired English teacher, so you can imagine my life growing up. I got bad grammar 'beaten out of me' at school AND at home. hahaha :D

      Thanks for visiting, Andrea! :)

  4. I know I shouldn't use them too much but I do love the dashes. But I'm good about avoiding the other ones. I hope you do get around to the en-dashes someday because I really no nothing about them.

    Thanks for the info!

    1. En dashes are used for periods of time in place of the word 'to,' such as: May–June. They are also used to join open compounds, such as: the New Mexico–Texas border.

      For simple compound words, use a hyphen. Ex: He was a well-known man.

  5. May I play, too?
    You'll want to remove the terminal "s" on "semicolons" in the sentence starting: "A semicolons is...."

    Also, you probably wanted "parentheses" instead of the singular in the sentence, "Some references say em dashes can replace parenthesis, but I disagree."

  6. No worries. If I dish it out, I gotta be able to take it, too. I laughed, actually. Both my mom and I proofed it prior to launch. Then I found three errors on Monday and fixed them. Now you found more. This goes to show that no matter how much we know about the subject of grammar, we can still make errors. ;)

    Thanks for stopping by. :)

  7. Melissa, I'm totally eaten up with guilt today, and SO regret my posts yesterday. Honestly, my eyes zone in on things other people don't catch (a real bummer when I'm reading a novel). That's why I feel there must be a use for this ability, and I should find a way to assist other Christian writers. Hopefully with tact and sensitivity, not by shooting holes in manuscripts. I figured that if I could find errors in your writing, maybe I'm good enough to take the idea to the next step.

    1. Hahaha. Me, too. Usually. :\

      I have three kids, homeschool one of them, work at my regular job on weekends, and blog and write. It's been a busy few weeks with school coming to a close. I think that's why I missed so many in this post. Of course, it's also harder to catch them in my own writing because I know what it's going to say and so my eyes skim right over the mistakes, seeing what it SHOULD say.

      As far as the challenge--don't put me on a pedestal. I'm sooo NOT the Grammar guru. LOL :D

  8. I am so guilty of overusing dashes! Thanks for the reminder on when its appropriate to use them and when its not! :-)

    1. I LOVE dashes. It's one of the things I have to rein in, too. Thanks for visiting! :)


Post a Comment

I love to hear what you have to say.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. = )