The Nuances of Language: Editor’s Edition
The Semicolon, the Em-dash, the En-dash, and the hyphen. Most people don’t really know what they’re used for. Most people don’t really have to, anyways.
They’re basically just placeholders. They’re used when a comma isn’t enough.
When, exactly, is a comma not enough?
A semicolon is used in place of a comma in two instances only. First is when we enumerate lists that enumerate things or when the words that we enumerate contain punctuation. Confusing, huh?
When we enumerate items in a list.
A typical example of this is when we enumerate cities of different countries.
Incorrect: “...Manila, Philippines, Bangkok, Thailand, Jakarta, Indonesia, etc.”
Correct: “...Manila, Philippines; Bangkok, Thailand; Jakarta, Indonesia; etc.”
If we only use commas for those, people who aren’t familiar with those places would be under the assumption that they are different cities, just like in the first quoted example.
Another example is when we enumerate long lists. A semicolon would help readers keep track of the division between the enumerated items. i.e.
“Our day-venture consisted of: going to the zoo, not a full-blown zoo but one with only reptiles; eating dinner by the lighthouse; and visiting the amusement park and trying out the rollercoaster, carousel, and bumper cars.”
When we connect two independent clauses.
A comma isn’t enough to separate two independent clauses, and maybe a period or coordinating conjunction is not to your tastes. We instead use a semicolon for that. If a comma is used, we will have created a comma splice, something we wish to avoid.
Incorrect: “I grew up wanting to be an artist, my parents wanted me to be an engineer.”
Correct: “I grew up wanting to be an artist; my parents wanted me to be an engineer.”
This is only used in combining words and should not be used in place of a dash.
Well-kept, good-natured, two-fold, long-term, etc.
This type of dash is named aptly “the en-dash” simply because it is meant to be of the same width as the letter “n”. This is used in indicating the number and date ranges, scores, and directions, as well as in indicating complex compound adjectives.
Number and Date Ranges
We use the en-dash when we want to signify a shift in time or numbers. It is used in place of “to and including” and “through”.
We are expected to work 40–50 hours per week.
You have to drink 5–8 glasses of water per day.
Scores and Directions
We use the en-dash when we want to indicate the difference between the scores of two teams in a sports game or a shift in setting(place).
The Chicago Bulls outscored the Dallas Mavericks 112–105 during their game last week.
The Brisbane–Ontario flight has been canceled.
Complex Compound Adjectives
We use an en-dash when we use open compound adjectives as one of the elements in our compound adjectives.
Gray broke my mom’s favorite Ming Dynasty–style vase.
My father possessed a Civil War–era bayonet.
This is mostly used as a means of indicating an interruption during a dialogue or a break in a sentence.
Interruption in dialogue.
We use an em-dash when an action interrupts a dialogue (when the dialogue tag interrupts the speaker).
“He loved you”—at least I thought so—” but you didn’t care.”
Marking a break in a sentence.
We use an em-dash when we want to indicate additional information that is unnecessary in understanding the sentence.
Once upon a time—long lost and perhaps too long ago—I believed I was different.
Do take note of one thing though, British English uses an en-dash in place of an em-dash.
That concludes—does it really? —our topic regarding special punctuations.