18 December 2003


A Blue Perspective: Punctuality

I'll admit it ... I was afraid of the semi-colon.

It seems to be one of those characters that people shy away from; its usage shrouded in a punctuational mystique that can only be interpreted by the grammatical elite. But it — along with other under-used punctuation marks — have shown me that writing can be changed from a lifeless, utilitarian process into something that not only allows creativity through expression, but also through the mechanics of that expression.

Semi-colons, colons, em dashes, ellipses — they're all a way of bringing personality into your writing. There are no hard and fast rules on when to use one over the other, just as there are no hard and fast rules when you are applying paint to a canvas; they are merely tools at the disposal of a writer. This is where I think many people are constrained — they are convinced that you must write in a certain, straightforward style: word, word, word, comma, word, word, word, word, full stop. While care must be taken that your writing style is appropriate for the audience and message that you are trying to deliver, the interesting use of punctuation can make a powerful argument even stronger and bring a spark of interest to the most pedestrian pieces of communication.

Semis & ems

The semi-colon is easy: it's the full stop you use when you don't want a full stop. When you're linking two statements together, the second related to the first — perhaps implicitly — but you don't want to break the flow of the writing: that's when you use a semi-colon.

An em dash: — (no, not a hyphen: - ) can either be a LOUDER comma, or take the place of a colon when defining something at the end of a sentence. I like to use it as an aside. It's bigger than a comma — so it interrupts the flow of the sentence more and gives the reader warning that they're being sidetracked — while allowing them to rejoin the sentence smoothly after having been diverted. Sometimes it's written as two hyphens: --.

Another technique I like to use to keep the reader's attention is to vary sentence lengths; keep them on their toes. Having a short sentence is great when you want to focus a reader's attention upon a certain point.

Hopefully, this brief (and amateur) explanation of the way I use grammar will help you to better utilise 2 out of the 101 keys on your board; or at least open your eyes to the freedom available in punctuation. I have, by no means, perfected my sentence structure, and will continue to experiment with all the different combinations available; feel free to do the same. Consult your doctor if pain persists.

References: WorkTalk | ARIES




  1. 1/6

    Brian Kuhn commented on 19 December 2003 @ 06:33

    You might enjoy "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White. Widely considered *the* guide to improving both your grammar and style.

  2. 2/6

    Joe Clark commented on 19 December 2003 @ 10:05

    On the Web, you shouldn't use the sequence space-emdash-space. Nobody except amateurs uses it in print, either, though you can use something like thinspace-emdash-thinspace in print if you have to. Online, use either space-endash-space or em dash with no spaces. But in that latter case, you'll *love* the rivers that browsers will introduce into your text. Space-endash-space is better.

  3. 3/6

    The Man in Blue commented on 19 December 2003 @ 10:32

    I can understand why some people fanatacise over such things as spacing between characters, as I am guilty of it myself in other areas, but I think that the writer should have the freedom to specify such things themselves.

    It is certainly valid to have "sticky" em dashes that connect with the surrounding words, but I find the effect is much too interruptive -- it is more like an interjection. If I want to comment on something mid-way through a sentence, I find that spacing the em dash gives that comment a bit of space and does not make the reader feel like they are suffocating.

    Such issues are purely semantic, and I feel that the zealotry with which some people dictate these "rules" is a contributing factor to why people don't use the broader range of grammatical tools.

  4. 4/6

    Ma Xia commented on 19 December 2003 @ 17:21

    The style in print used to be em dash and no space. The modern trend in print, and much better, is en dash with space.

    On the web the latter is aesthetically better, em dashes shouldn't be used at all. Joe Clark is quite right, clearly a man with taste and perhaps, like myself, an old letterpress fanatic if he's still using words like "thin". How many web designers know what a thin is, let alone a mid and a thick?

    Ever wondered why in old letterpress books you sometimes have black rectangles between words? That the lead space not being tight enough, working its way to the top, and taking ink from the rollers. Anyone who has set type by hand in lead will realise that there are reasons for the things others more ignorant regard as arbitrary typographical "rules". It's called having a good sense of aesthetic taste.

  5. 5/6

    Davey commented on 2 April 2004 @ 01:02

    Finally, a site (author, designer, human bean . . .) where the belittling of punctuation and a clean, clear layout is absent!
    Long live CSS & semi-colons! ;)

  6. 6/6

    Chris commented on 6 October 2004 @ 01:04

    I'm a little late to the party but you may enjoy the book "Eats, Shoots and leaves" by Lynne Truss:


  7. Leave your own comment

    Comments have been turned off on this entry to foil the demons from the lower pits of Spamzalot.

    If you've got some vitriol that just has to be spat, then contact me.

Follow me on Twitter

To hear smaller but more regular stuff from me, follow @themaninblue.

Monthly Archives

Popular Entries

My Book: Simply JavaScript

Simply JavaScript

Simply JavaScript is an enjoyable and easy-to-follow guide for beginners as they begin their journey into JavaScript. Separated into 9 logical chapters, it will take you all the way from the basics of the JavaScript language through to DOM manipulation and Ajax.

Step-by-step examples, rich illustrations and humourous commentary will teach you the right way to code JavaScript in both an unobtrusive and an accessible manner.

RSS feed