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Illustration of punctuations on a page
November 16, 2020
4 mins read

Semicolons, dashes, and commas, oh my!

Punctuation, like taxes, is mundane, but unavoidable. See, this post has already used 5 punctuation marks. Make that 6.

Whether you’re writing a succinct lab report or a thesis that spans dozens of pages, punctuation plays an important role in conveying your thoughts.

Polished punctuation usage is not only a sign of proficient writing and editing, but an essential element of comprehensible communication—as the old line goes, punctuation use is the difference between saying “Let’s eat, grandma” and “Let’s eat grandma.”

The world of punctuation is filled with dynamic and lively characters. In fact, it’s something like a dinner party, where each punctuational attendee has their own role and their own quirks. All of the guests congregate together, some of them clash, but at the end of the day, they all work together to ensure a steady stream of conversation.

Entering a room full of strangers can be a daunting task, so let me introduce you to each member of the punctuation dinner party:

The comma,

Commas are the life of the party. They’re everyone’s friend, and they’re everywhere at once. When conversation seems to be dying down, you can always trust the comma to get things started again.

In other words, commas are perhaps the most essential (and most frequently used) punctuation mark.

For starters, commas separate elements of a list from one another.

Example: There are several libraries at UBC, like Koerner, Woodward and the Law Library.

The serial, or Oxford, comma, is used before conjunctions (connecting words) like “and”. It’s not required, but it can add clarity and precision to your writing.

Example: There are several libraries at UBC, like Koerner, Woodward, and the Law Library.

Whether or not you use the serial comma in your writing, make sure that you choose one approach and stick to it consistently. 

Commas also isolate adverbs at the beginning of sentences.

Example: Finally, I found a seat at the library.

Splices are a common misuse of the comma, and occur when a comma links two independent clauses that could otherwise be linked with a conjunction or another punctuation mark, such as a colon.     

Example (Incorrect): There are several libraries at UBC, they each have their own charm.

Example (Correct): There are several libraries at UBC, and they each have their own charm.  

The colon:

The colon is the silent but reliable guest. They show up on time and bring a suitable appetizer. They don’t speak much and sum up their vacation to Laos in a single sentence, but you’re still happy they’re there.

Colons can be used with subtle versatility. For starters, they're great at introducing lists.

Example: There are many trees native to British Columbia: maple, spruce, and hemlock.     

Colons can also be used before quotation marks.

Example: As Marshall McLuhan once said: “The medium is the message.”  

Note: Colons cannot be used between a verb and its complement (the word linked with the verb itself that completes the meaning of the sentence).

Example (Incorrect): Some trees native to British Columbia are: maple, spruce, and hemlock.

The semicolon;

The semicolon is the matchmaker. They introduced everyone at the dinner party to one another; they introduced you to your last three partners; they introduced you to your new accountant. The semicolon is social glue.

Semicolons are most often used to link two complete sentences together. This can help connect and emphasize two separate, but related, thoughts.

Example: I had a very busy day yesterday; I attended class, went to work, and ran to Wreck Beach to catch the sunset.

Semicolons are also commonly placed before conjunctions that link two independent, but related, clauses.

Example: I had a very busy day yesterday; however, it was very fun.

Note: use semicolons sparingly, as when highlighting a transition word like “however.” After all, with great semicolon power comes great semicolon responsibility.

The em-dash—

The em-dash is a bit of an interjector. There’s not a topic that they won’t jump on to share their opinion. They keep things lively, but sometimes you wish they’d tone it down.

I’m a big fan of the em-dash—it’s the punctuation jack of all trades.

Dashes can be used for emphasis, as you can see above. Dashes can also be used to isolate information within a sentence.

Example: We made dinner—steak, potatoes, and salad—and then watched a movie.

Dashes are also used to highlight modifiers.

Example: She visited the shopping mall—eerily quiet this Christmas season—yesterday morning.

Note: The em-dash is typically used without spacing before or after. It’s also considered less formal than other punctuation marks, like the semicolon.

The ellipsis…

The ellipsis can’t finish a single story before jumping to a new topic. They seem to ramble and hop between plot points…hey, did you watch the game last night?

Ellipses are used most often in academic writing to indicate that information has been left out in a quotation.

Example: In the preface to Richard Farina’s book, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, fellow novelist Thomas Pynchon writes, “I remember giving him lots of free advice…fortunately, he didn’t take any of it.”  

While they play an important role in concise quotes, ellipses should be left out of academic writing for the most part. 

Punctuation matters, period.

This is just a brief introduction into the wondrous world of punctuation, but hopefully, you get the point or, umm, the colon?

If you’re needing a bit of a break from punctuation, pick up a book by Cormac McCarthy—an author known for his strained relationship with punctuation.

Or, if your appetite for punctuational knowledge has only grown, check out the Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication, where the team of knowledgeable consultants can help you at every stage of the writing process.

Remember, it’s not about being an all-knowing punctuation expert, but about learning to communicate your ideas as clearly as possible! There’s always a seat for you at the punctuation dinner party.