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Underused Punctuation

Underused Punctuation
The way you use punctuation can breathe life into your writing—or it can make the tone fall flat. A good flow, with the right type of pause and division of information in your writing not only helps reading comprehension, but gives the inflection you're looking for without relying solely on things like italics. Check out some of these underused (or misused) punctuation marks, and give them a go if they aren't in your arsenal already!

The em dash

The em dash is a great way to change the inflection of something, and can replace commas, periods, semicolons, and parenthesis. If you want something to have more stiffness or urgency, the em dash might be what you're looking for. In code, this would be — for those of you who want the HTML markup, but you can achieve the same effect with two standard dashes (--) if needed.

"Wait—what was that?" he hissed.

It's also great in speech to indicate uncertainty in the direction of stream of consciousness when you don't want the meandering tone of an ellipsis. "There was a— I mean it was like— Look, I don't know what it was, but it was huge!"

An em dash can also be a good replacement for parenthesizing something—that is to say providing a contextual aside—you're explaining.

Note: A dash, an en dash, and an em dash are used for different things.
A dash (-) is for hyphenation, such as "up-to-date".
An en dash (–) is for ranges, such as 2002–2006 or Monday–Friday.
An em dash (—) is for breaking up sentences.

Do you use a space after an em dash, or no? Typically you don't. When writing for a newspaper or other format using AP style, you probably will, but this is a style/formatting choice. Here's what I tend to do: If an em dash is being used to substitute another punctuation mark, like a semicolon or parenthesis, I don't use a space before or after the em dash.

If I'm using the em dash to indicate incomplete thoughts being abandoned and a new thought being started (typically in dialogue), I do add a space after the em dash to further emphasis the point that the previous and next statement are not forming one flowing thought. I wouldn't call this a punctuation standard, but if you jive with it, I really don't think it's incorrect; just a style choice.

The interrobang

The interrobang is a fun one, and you should definitely be using it. You'll most often see it as ?! or !?, but ‽ is a singular punctuation mark specifically for an interrobang. I never use it, but I appreciate its existence. If you're enamored with it, be assured it's a valid format to use. None of the options are more "correct" than the other, but if you want my personal opinion: I prefer ?! best, because you're asking a question that happens to be an exclamation as well, and it's still a question first and an exclamation second. Or, at least, that's my feeling on it.

"What the hell—why would you say that?!" she snapped angrily, turning on him so quickly her purse fell from her shoulder to swing at her elbow.

Why do I love this? It's expressive. It gets the point across more elegantly than using multiple question marks to indicate the intensity of a question, which can sometimes look more like it belongs in a text message than in your writing.

The semicolon

I've written a full guide on this, linked above, so I won't go into detail on it here too; just trust me when I say you're missing out, and check out the full guide to learn more about it!

Using Semicolons

Using Semicolons
Something I get told a lot whenever semicolons come up in conversation (usually when I'm expressing my undying love for them) is, "I can never figure out how to use them." As an avid fan of semicolons, I'm here to try to clear up the mystery for those of you who aren't sure how to use them, and to encourage you to start incorporating them into your writing to achieve a more nuanced flow to your style.

What is a semicolon?

I like to explain a semicolon as being something like a soft period. It's more firm than a comma, but not as final as starting a new statement, because the statements the semicolon is separating are related. It often takes the place of conjunctions like "and" because it does the same thing in some contexts. Conjunctions are used to connect or coordinate two statements. These are: and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet.

You're typically going to want to view this as an either/or situation. Either you're going to use a semicolon, or you're going to use a conjunction. There are a couple of caveats to this, but we'll get to that later.

The semicolon or semi-colon is a symbol commonly used as orthographic punctuation. In the English language, a semicolon can be used between two closely related independent clauses, provided they are not already joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Semicolons aren't just for eliminating conjunctions to connect two related clauses, though, so I'd like to go over some of the uses for semicolons as we go forward in this guide.

How and when do you use it?

A semicolon is, of course, not one size fits all. "Are you going to the store first; the library?" does technically make sense, but may be better served with "or" instead of a semicolon. If it sounds like a word is missing and it's not for intentional dialogue purposes, you'll want to stick with a conjunction. Writing depends on a good flow to read well, which is why some of the "rules" of writing seem to change depending on context. Some things are incorrect no matter what, while others are subjective.

After six months back on the job, he probably didn't need to remind himself every time; he did it anyway, just in case.

[my writing partner in the first semicolon I could find]

Here, my writing partner is replacing the word "but" in their sentence. Conjunctions can read as clunky or amateur in some cases because your compound clauses start relying on too many commas, and a semicolon just feels nicer; other times, your conjunction is what fits best.

"So we're starting from scratch," [he] said. That wasn't a problem; it meant he wasn't trying to fix someone else's shoddy job.

[my writing partner]

This example isn't necessarily omitting a conjunction, but it is connecting two related clauses with a longer pause than a comma while not ending the statement the way a period would. My writing partner is expressing two thoughts for their character here: that it isn't a problem for the character, and why it isn't a problem for him. They're closely related enough that a semicolon does the job just a little bit better than a period would, eliminating the risk of choppy, curt sentence structure—unless that's what you're going for, of course.

Using semicolons for descriptive lists

We're used to using commas to separate list items. Milk, eggs, bread, and tea are all things we might need from the store. That being said, sometimes a semicolon can be appropriate! If your list of items is wordier, say the things being listed are more abstract or complex thoughts, you may benefit from a semicolon instead—especially if you need a comma within the listed phrases.

She loved the way she felt when he looked at her; how his presence warmed her, even when it was a quiet one; the way he understood what she was trying to say, even when she hadn't said much at all.

[on the fly example]

Most of the above clauses are complex in nature, meaning they need their own commas, and using commas to separate each clause would confuse the natural flow considerably. Using semicolons to separate related clauses, and commas for pauses in each clause for appropriate pauses, clears up just where one ends and the next begins. You could use periods to separate these thoughts, but to avoid fragmented sentences you'd need unnecessary wordiness where the semicolons would have served you better. (In my opinion.)

Can you use semicolons and conjunctions at the same time?

Some people say no; I say yes. Most of the time I don't think it's needed, but in some cases (complex compound sentences like the previous example), the context might be better served with a conjunction after the last semicolon in the sentence.

"Moving along," he said, walking quickly as he launched into his explanation. "On the first floor you'll find your bunks, the mess hall, and rec areas; the second floor is dedicated to our training rooms, state of the art, of course; the third floor is Research & Development; and the basement is restricted to full clearance personnel only."

[on the fly example]

This is admittedly a little clunky, and I could definitely opt to write this with shorter sentences instead if preferred, but it's still an example where a semicolon can coexist next to a conjunction.

Well, I guess that's it for me on this one! I hope you walk away from this guide with a better understanding of semicolons, and more confidence using them in your writing. If you have any questions at all, please feel free to comment!