Semicolons, Em-dashes, and Ellipses

 

We are at the letter S in our series on “Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

If you’ve read the previous posts on the subject, you’ll recall that the eight of us – Devika Fernando, Preethi Venugopala, Paromita Goswami, Adite Banerjie, Ruchi Singh, Sudesna Ghosh, Saiswaroopa Iyer and I – are blogging on a myriad of writing-related topics with the topic corresponding to the Alphabet of the Week.

This week I’m going to talk about some interesting punctuation marks that you should certainly try in your writing.

First, I’m going to define what a clause is, because we’ll be talking about it a lot in the following section.

A clause is a group of words – it forms part of a sentence AND contains a subject and a verb.

For example: Tanay stepped into the en-suite bathroom and began to look for a shaving kit.

This sentence has two clauses (subject-verb pair): the first clause is an independent one since it is meaningful on its own (Tanay stepped into the en-suite bathroom) while the second one cannot stand alone but is dependent on the first clause (began to look for a shaving kit).

Having got that, we’re all set to move forward.

When to use a semicolon ( ; )

1. This is helpful when you need to show that two independent clauses are related to each other and that both are equally important.

Example:
Option 1: Mita could hear water running. She tried to block out the image of him under the shower, but it was too late and the heat rushed up her body.

In this example, it appears as though everything is happening simultaneously – a little too fast if you ask me. It is also a long sentence.

Option 2: Mita could hear water running. She tried to block out the image of him under the shower, but it was too late. The heat rushed up her body.

This example is not bad in terms of length of the clauses; however, the period puts up a wall between the image in Mita’s head and her reaction to it.

Option 3: Mita could hear water running. She tried to block out the image of him under the shower, but it was too late; the heat rushed up her body.

I would choose this version. I did use it, in fact, in Take One Fake Fiance.

2. Use it when you want to separate multiple complex phrases that comprise a list.

Example:
Mita felt abstracted, as if she was watching it all happen to somebody else. A part of her registered other things: the scent of honeysuckle; she could taste whiskey on his tongue; the ‘Blue Danube’ floated out through the terrace doors.

3. It is an ally when you want to use an adverb like ‘however, therefore, or moreover’ in the form of a conjunction to join two independent clauses.

Example:
Pride forced Mita to recover her composure and she fixed him with a withering glare; however, before she could open her mouth and order him out, he leaned back in over her and asked, ‘What’s it to be then? Do we both back off? Or do I go public?’

When to use the em-dash (—)

1. When you want to draw the reader’s attention to a particular part of a sentence, then use an em-dash rather than a comma to separate the phrase from the rest of the sentence. It is a much more emphatic separator than a comma, as the following example will show:

Example with commas:
Tanay was a man of the world, at least he looked like he was equal to anything, even absent-minded rolls in the hay with women he didn’t particularly like, but Mita was different.

Example with em-dashes:
Tanay was a man of the world—at least, he looked like he was equal to anything, even absent-minded rolls in the hay with women he didn’t particularly like—but Mita was different.

2. If the phrase of interest is at the end of the sentence, then use only one em-dash.

Example:
It was worse when she met his gaze—there was a fire in the ebony depths that was as fascinating as it was frightening.

3. You can also use an em-dash when you want to interrupt a dialogue. If somebody cuts off the speaker, show it with an em-dash.

Example:
‘Mita—’ Tanay began, but Mita jumped off the bed, taking the sheet with her, and ran into the shower, slamming the door rather determinedly behind her.

If, on the other hand, the speaker trails off in the middle of a dialogue, show it with an ellipsis (…).

Example:
‘What…’ Mita sputtered, only to discover that the nice lady who’d been seated next to her on the plane was missing and had been replaced by Tanay.

Tips:
Notice that there are no spaces on either side of an em-dash or an ellipsis—I have just learned this fact, which means that you’re likely to find spaces in my earlier books; forgive me for it, please, because I…I’m still learning.

Don’t overuse these punctuation marks. They are meant to indicate a small or a significant pause in the story—too many and your story will sound choppy.

What do you think of these fascinating punctuation marks; do you use them in your writing?

Read other posts related to Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing.

5 thoughts on “Semicolons, Em-dashes, and Ellipses

  1. Manish Sahu

    “Notice that there are no spaces on either side of an em-dash or an ellipsis”

    That’s incorrect. That’s in fact sounding like a strict English teacher.

    I wrote a book that you reviewed — and that included a story called “The Long Dash.”

    I am no grammar expert, but I did look around. The spaces depend on which style you follow — the APA or the Chicago style. BOTH ARE CORRECT.

    I prefer spaces. Simply because it doesn’t break up things when read in a smaller mobile device.

    For example, your spellings in books or this very blog are a disaster. You use half American spellings and half British spellings.

    Language is supposed to communicate in the best way possible. Let go of rules that strangle you.

    .

    1. Reet Singh

      You’re not alone in your dislike at being strangulated by rules, Manish. I personally find the spaced em-dash more elegant to use.

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