Friday, April 22, 2011

Writer vs. Punctuation: An Epic Battle

Remember the olden days?  The days when you were in school and your teacher, professor, instructor, nun, sensei, or even Murray The Janitor were pleased as punch with your proper usage of commas.  Commas; back then they were our one big hurdle to overcome in book reports, exams and Language Arts assignments.  As fledgling writers, we used to believe that when we conquered the almighty comma we would, in essence, conquer the entire Kingdom of the Literary Word.  With the fall of the comma, we'd won the war and there was nothing separating us now from our dreams of literary domination.  But, wait...what's this?  A new onslaught to interrupt (pun intended) our quest?  Suddenly, we find ourselves surrounded by a mass of whole new problems: colons, semicolons and em-dashes.  They're unrelenting and they'e putting up one hell of a fight.

Colons, semicolons and em-dashes are lovely little mindfucks whose seemingly soul purpose is to royally confuse those of us who've stay up well past our bedtimes in order to indulge our ideas of new plot twists, dialogues or to capitalize on a relief from writer's block.  As much as we writers would like to dismiss these curvaceous dots and scintillating dashes, they do in fact serve a purpose and a function.  Undoubtedly, understanding these purposes and functions will take your writing to a whole new level.


Out of the three killjoys, semicolons are probably the easiest one to defeat.  Semicolons; are they a colon or an overexuberant comma?  I don't think they even know. 

Use a semicolon as follows:

  • To separate two independent clauses.  A semicolon is used when you want your audience to briefly pause and then read an entirely different independent  but related clause. Just think of a semicolon as a conjunction's evil twin.
          Example:  I really liked Johnny; his lack of personal hygiene unfortunately made him difficult to be around.
          If a conjunction would have been used:  I really liked Johnny but his lack of personal hygiene unfortunately made him difficult to be around.

          Do not use semicolons to link two completely unrelated ideas:  Calling me "ma'am" makes me homicidal; I want pancakes.

  • Use a semicolon to separate items in a list that utilize other forms of punctuation.
     Example:   Jersey Shore features Pauly somethingorother, a guy with weird hair; Snooki, an "actress" who also wrote a "book"; Ronnie, some other dude of lesser significance; and Mike, a complete moron. <---The fact that I know their names should disqualify me from existence on this planet.


The second horsemen of the Apocolypse are em-dashes--punctuation that features two hyphens for the price of one.

Em-dashes are:
  • Used to interrupt, but not offset a phrase.
       Example:  Jersey Shore is featured in several different languages on MTV--nobody cared.
  • Two em-dashes, one on each side of a phrase, are used essentially in the place of a parentheses for information that you want to include but is completely unnecessary.
      Example:  To the dismay of everyone, this blog will now be featured in several different languages--Japanese, Valleygirlese, Pig Latin, and Spam--from this point forward.


Colons are the most brutal warrior of them all and never cease to foil me. 
  • Use a colon to introduce a list of items
      Example:  You need to possess three traits to read my blog:  a sense of sarcasm, a love of writing, and a bologna sandwich.

  • Use a colon to introduce a definition
      Example:  Jersey Shore (n):  The first sign of the end times.

Now that you have the information necessary to defeat these evil bastards, get to writing. 



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