Throughout my life teachers and peers have thrown at me advice on punctuation that ranges from the absurd to the nonsensical. “Run on sentences are illegal!”, “Don’t use a semicolon, just use a period.”

If you’ve read my work you’ll know that I take splitting up sentences seriously. I chop them up with dashes commas and the occasional semicolon. You may have noticed that this liberal use of marks forces you to read a certain way- And I hope you do. But why do I use them, and am I even using them properly?

I can understand why there is so much confusion about how to structure longer or split sentences. We teach our kids that a run-on is a sentence with too many commas in it. We teach that this is wrong because the teacher said so. I’m not joking we actually do this.

Why, then, is a run-on a bad thing? A run on sentence is a sentence that has more than one independent clause separated improperly. That’s all it is: it’s when you use a comma instead of a semicolon, dash, or good old fashion periods. Is that really so evil? I don’t think so. Dickens’s a Tale of Two Cities is well remembered for the following:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of the noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Dickens

As a kid I saw famous lines like this and knew that following these punctuation rules to the T was little more than the pedantic actions of limited thinking. They have a use, but can be ignored by a writer with skill. I was wrong. These rules are there because only the best writers can break them effectively. Try it- you won’t like what you’ve written.

My advice? Follow the rule- and I’m not contradicting myself- the run-on works for Dickens, Faulkner, and Hemingway, but it’s doubtful to work for you. To avoid the run-on, try to only use commas for dependent clauses- once two thoughts can be separated by complete sentences waste no time in separating them properly.

So it’s not:

I went to the mall and got some coffee, then I walked around a bit and met chad who had on a black jacket and tight skinny jeans that he said showed off his better features, whatever that means, and he and I walked over to the clubs and danced with some girls from out of town named Betty and Boo.

But:

I went to the mall and got some coffee. There I walked around a bit before meeting chad, who had on a black jacket and tight skinny jeans which he said “showed off his better features” (whatever that means). After we met, he and I walked over to the clubs and danced with some girls from out of town named Betty and Boo.

You’ll notice in this example set that I didn’t use dashes or semicolons. You could use them, and a better writer may be able to look at this and say- hey here’s a better way to split these awful sentences. But what, then, do I use dashes and semicolons for?

In the Elements of Style Strunk and White suggest that a dash be used to “set of an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.” They essentially argue it is an informal semicolon. It gets the job done without stressing anyone out.

The first example they give- which I’ll use because it’s so good- is as follows:

“His first thought on getting out of bed- if he had any thought at all- was to get back in bed.” (Strunk & White)

Here we have an abrupt interruption, a kind of footnote in the middle of a sentence. It works better than a comma would here because the thoughts described aren’t descriptive of his bed or how he got out of bed- but something else entirely. The best way to use these is when other punctuation seems off. You have to really think about when to use the dash, because it can easily be replaced by a simple comma and in some cases ought to be replaced by parentheses or semicolon. Again it is still considered to be an informal tool- don’t use it often at work; this guy is for play.

So what even is a semicolon? A semicolon just separates two independent clauses that would look silly as separate sentences. What does that mean? It splits one sentence that is actually two sentences in a way that lets the reader know that it is two sentences.

Here’s an example of correct use:

“We’re not going to make it to them in time; we’ll have to make the jump to hyperspace now!”

As opposed to:

“We’re not going to make it to them in time. We’ll have to make the jump to hyperspace now!”

Which seems choppy and off when reading it. Honestly looks like a robot is talking. The semicolon is considered formal in Strunk and White’s reasoning, and I’m inclined to agree. In my work I don’t use it nearly as often as a dash and I try not to write sentences that would need it at all. In many cases the semicolon and dash are interchangeable- so it’s up to you to see which fits better.

Remember that one of the main goals in punctuation usage is to make the reader understand what’s on the page by reading it in a certain manner. It’s not a toy or a set of rules to be followed while you drink brandy with mustachioed pseudo-intellectuals, but a tool to enhance the reading. Always Always punctuate for the benefit of the reader and not to satisfy your own pedantic narcissism.

And as always, Keep writing my friends.

Dickens, Charles, and De Mille A. B. A Tale of Two Cities. Allyn and Bacon, 1966.
Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Pearson Longman, 2009.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on punctuation. What does it mean to you? Do you think I’m wrong about its use and faculty? Thinking about unhelpful advice you’ve received about writing and want me to cover it? Let me know in the comments below and I might cover it in a future session.

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6 thoughts on “Commas, Semicolons, Dashes- Oh My! Misunderstood Writing Advice

  1. Great thoughts! I admit to being terrible with the use, or lack thereof, of punctuation! My sentences can run on for what should be several paragraphs! Or they can be one word. I’m terrible, people have tried to correct me, but it’s just the way I like to write, a bit on the humorous side, so it works better this way. Like your site, I’m sure I can pick up some good tips as I join you! Thanks for the follow too!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read this and for leaving such a wonderful comment!
      I know sticking to the grammar is not only difficult, but at times it can be detrimental to the writer’s style. It really depends on the piece and how you use what you know. Glad to hear you like this, and thanks for joining me.

      Keep writing, my friend. Looking forward to seeing your work.

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