The Powerhouse Of Writing6_ Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes-1

The Powerhouse Of Writing 6: Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes

In our sixth post on the powerhouse of writing, we look at colons, semicolons, and dashes, and how they can strengthen your writing.

The Powerhouse Of Writing 6: Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes

As a writer, you must know more than your ABCs, fancy words, or stylish phrases. You also need to know how to relate those words to your reader. That’s where punctuation kicks in.

Building on our successful series Punctuation for Beginners,  we will now look beyond the grammar rules. Did your teachers tell you that those punctuation marks are the true powerhouse of writing? They can supercharge your text if used correctly.

Today, we’ll look at colons, semicolons, and dashes. These are all gentle tools of pacing. Let’s see what they can do for you (if you need a recap on the basics, please read All About Colons And Semicolons first).

Gentle Tools Of Pacing

Colons, semicolons, and dashes all have one thing in common: they influence the pacing of your sentence. They never mark the end of a sentence, so their job is not that of a full stop (like ending a thought). No, their job is to manage your reading flow (and your breath!). In that, colons, semicolons and dashes are akin to the comma. But the pause they offer is more marked than a comma.

Why Do We Need Gentle Pacing?

A text is a bit like a piece of music. You need rests, when the musicians don’t play, and your ears can get ready for the next bar (like a full stop). In between, you need spots where you catch your breath. In music, that’s called a breath mark. In a text, it’s a comma.

But you need other kinds of pacing tools as well to gently steer your voice. That’s where colons, semicolons, and dashes come in. They make your text more interesting by varying the rhythm of your sentence. They steer your breath and the pitch of your voice. Let’s look at each of them more closely.

The Colon Announces

The colon is interesting because it is used for so many different things.

The only colon you cannot hear at all is the one used to express time (for example, 3:30 a.m.). This colon is merely a typographical tool to set the hours apart from the minutes.

All other colons you can hear. Colons cause the pitch of your voice to go up ever so slightly. That’s called an upward inflexion. Upward inflexions create anticipation in the reader’s ear for what is to come. This is the main job of a colon: it announces whatever comes after the mark (did you notice?).

Colons are used for dialogue, quotations, upcoming lists, or sub-titles. Another use is between two main clauses when the second clause is an explanation of the first.

In general, the colon shows us that the semantic unit is not finished even though the grammatical unit could be. Please read the following examples out loud.

Example 1: Sally said: “I’d like the salad, with the dressing on the side.” (dialogue)
Example 2: The Queen’s Funeral: How The Nation Came Together (subtitle)
Example 3: It’s easy to separate men from boys: look at the price of their toys. (explanation)
Example 4: This cake needs many ingredients: flour, eggs, sugar, and butter. (list)
Example 5: Shakespeare said: “In black ink, my love may still shine bright.” (quotation)

In these examples, the sentence before the colon is a complete grammatical unit. It could stand on its own. But semantically, it needs the part after the colon to make sense.

If you read those examples correctly, the pitch of your voice should show that upward inflexion. It’s a bit like reading a very long, pronounced comma.

The Semicolon Connects

The semicolon is tricky for lots of writers. It offers breaks a bit longer than the comma, and shorter than a full stop. It doesn’t create that much anticipation like the colon does.

You can already tell that the semicolon needs other punctuation marks to define itself. That makes it hard for many writers to use it correctly.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why the semicolon is practically out of fashion nowadays. But take a look at the introduction to R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (first published 1886):

‘Mr Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.’

That’s three semicolons in one sentence! Why did the author use them? Because he needed to set apart several lists, and yet connect them all in one sentence. He wanted the long slow flow of the sentence. Only a semicolon could have created that kind of pacing.

Semicolons can also connect two related ideas, two opposites, or juxtapose ideas. They simply connect. It’s up to the reader to figure out the nature of that connection.

Nowadays, most writers use conjunctions instead. This may be more precise because conjunctions define that relationship for the reader. They make reading and understanding easier. But if you’d like to engage your reader more, then use semicolons.

The Dash Disrupts

You’ve probably heard that dashes exist as En dashes and Em dashes. En dashes are used to show ranges, like historical eras (1939-1945) or age groups (ages 2-5 years).

Em dashes are becoming increasingly popular in informal writing. That’s because they reflect speech patterns of spoken language.

When we speak, we don’t always use perfect prose. We break off mid-sentence, add something, and then go back to end our thought (hopefully).  When we put this in writing, we use Em dashes.

Example 1: I’m good at dancing – at least I think I am – but my husband never dances with me.
Example 2: I’ll tell you my greatest secret – no, I changed my mind.

Theoretically, Em dashes could be replaced by commas or brackets. They do supply the same kind of breaks. Yet there’s one difference: where commas ensure that there’s only a slight disruption of the sentence, the Em dashes call attention to it. They disrupt to emphasize what is being said. 

The Last Word

This is the final part of our series on the powerhouse of writing. If you’ve enjoyed my way of looking at grammar, please check out my upcoming post on punctuating poetry.

Further Reading

  1. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  2. The Powerhouse Of Writing 2: The Comma
  3. The Powerhouse Of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
  4. The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark
  5. The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks
  6. The Powerhouse Of Writing 6: Colons, Semicolons, & Dashes

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett.

Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

More Posts From Susanne

  1. The Powerhouse Of Writing 5: Quotation Marks
  2. The Powerhouse Of Writing 4: The Question Mark
  3. The Powerhouse of Writing 3: The Exclamation Mark
  4. The Powerhouse of Writing 2: The Comma
  5. The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
  6. How To Play Surrealist Word Games
  7. How To Write Surrealist Poetry
  8. What Is Automatic Writing?
  9. Surrealism – What Every Writer Should Know
  10. How To Write Without Your Muse

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Posted on: 27th September 2022