Grammar is a bitch: Punctuation

Sometimes, writing makes you want to spatter the contents of your head all over the walls; it is so fucking frustrating! Writing is more complicated than you think sometimes—periods, commas, semicolons, colons, hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes. Let's see if we can't break them down!

Let’s start with the simple ones: the period and the comma. I hope most of you know what they are used for; this is some pretty basic stuff.

The period is used to mark the end of a sentence, one that includes at least one independent clause. An independent clause is a clause—a part of a sentence—that is a complete sentence by itself. Of course, a period can also be used to mark the end of only an incomplete clause, but this is technically not grammatically correct.

The comma is used in many ways, and is by far the most versatile and diverse of all punctuation marks. It is used to create a pause in the sentence, often between two clauses, either independent or dependent. It is also used in lists, such as, “For breakfast, Tom had toast, eggs, and milk.” In that sentence, the first comma divides the dependent clause “For breakfast” with the independent clause “Tom had toast, eggs, and milk.” The dependent clause modifies the independent clause, but cannot stand for itself. Furthermore, commas are used to separate the list of items Tom had for breakfast, and the final comma—the one before “and”—is a so called serial comma or oxford comma. It is in no way necessary; the sentence could also be written, “Tom had toast, eggs and milk.” But I like having that comma, because it eliminates ambiguity problems.

Tom visited his parents, Anne and Michael.

Tom visited his parents, Anne, and Michael.

Do you understand the difference between the two examples? Both utilize the serial comma rule, but the first example has no serial comma. This is because Tom’s parents are Anne and Michael in that example. In the second example, however, he does not visit his parents who are named Anne and Michael, but his parents AND Anne AND Michael—four different people, assuming he has two parents.

Can the comma be used in any other way? Why, yes, it can. It can also be used to create parentheses in sentences. The text written between the commas in the below example specifies who Tom’s parents are, BUT it is not needed for the sentence. The commas are, in essence, a set of parentheses.

Tom’s parents, Anne and Michael, live in Florida.

Let’s move on to the more complicated stuff—semicolons, colons, and the three different dashes. Semicolons are very useful; they can be used to link together two sentences, always independent clauses, so that a connection is established between them. Sometimes, it is difficult to tell if a semicolon or colon should be used, because colons are used in a similar fashion; they are used to link together two sentences, to establish a strong relationship. With a colon, the first sentence has to be an independent clause, while the other can be a list or dependent clause. With a colon, the second sentence is always directly linked to the first sentence.

Tom ate a big breakfast this morning: he ate eggs, toast, baked beans, and sausages.

Do you see how they are connected? In the first sentence, it is told that Tom had a big breakfast, while in the second one, it is specified what he ate, or in a sense how big it was. Of course, a semicolon could theoretically be used in the example as well, since both sentences are independent clauses. However, if we write it so the second sentence is a dependent clause, only a colon can be used.

Tom ate a big breakfast this morning: eggs, toast, baked beans, and sausages.

As a final and very useful application of the semicolon, it can separate items in a complicated list. Right now, you think, “But commas are used for that.” Yes, they are, but if the list includes commas, such as when listing places, the semicolon is used to simplify the list.

Tom visited Los Angeles, California, Boston, Massachusetts, and New York City, New York.

Tom visited Los Angeles, California; Boston, Massachusetts; and New York City, New York.

Let’s move on to the dashes. They are called hyphens (-), en dashes (–), and em dashes (—). Hyphens are the shortest of the three, and are used to create compound words and connect parts of words, should they not fit on the same line. Let’s say “breakfast” doesn't fit on the same line in a book. It would then be split up as “break-fast”, with “break-” on one line and “fast” on the next.

The compound words I speak of are, for example, compound adjectives. A compound word is basically two words that have been put together to mean something else. When these compound adjectives are placed BEFORE a noun, they should always be hyphened, to remove ambiguity problems. Most of the time, no ambiguity problem arises.

A light blue sky.

A light-blue sky.

In the two examples above—both of which are dependent clauses and technically grammatically incorrect—the meaning is the same: the sky is light blue. Both examples are understood in this manner, because if they were separate adjectives, a comma would separate them:

A light, blue sky.

However, it is not always that easy. Sometimes, ambiguity problems could arise because, for example, the second word in the compound adjective could also be part of the noun instead. A good example I saw somewhere on the internet was “heavy metal detector” and “heavy-metal detector”. The first one could either be an apparatus that detects heavy metals, but it could also be a metal detector that is heavy. The second one specifies very clearly that it is an apparatus that detects heavy metals. Therefore, hyphens should always be used in compound words—or at least when a clear ambiguity problem is seen. Because if they are always used, then we can safely assume that if someone writes “heavy metal detector”, they mean a metal detector that weighs much.

Let’s move on to the dashes, which are used based mostly on personal preference. The en dash (–) is called so because it is as broad as a lowercase “n” (n–). Taken directly from Wikipedia, it is used to indicate spans or differentiation, where it may be considered to replace "and" or "to". In these cases, it should not be flanked by spaces.

Rest in peace Kerstin Hallgren
May 9, 1936–February 13, 2013

The em dash (—) is called as such because it is as broad as an uppercase “M” (M—). It is one of the most useful marks at an author’s disposal. It is used in the same way as commas and parentheses, in that they section off something related to the main sentence, but not necessary for it. The en dash can also be used in this manner, in which case it should be flanked by spaces, but I prefer the em dash for this use.

It can be difficult to choose between a dash and a comma (and also parentheses, but I don’t use them in my books). All I can say is commas should be used to create the parentheses if what is written between them is highly relevant to the sentence, while dashes should be used to add information. Also, as an important note, spaces do not flank an em dash, and also, only one dash has to be used, if the parenthesis is created at the end of a sentence.

The man—who looked a little bit like Tom Cruise—thought scientology was a fun religion.

The man, who looked a little bit like Tom Cruise, thought scientology was a fun religion.

The difference between the two examples is that the first one says a man whom the reader already knows and who happens to look like Tom Cruise likes scientology, while the second one specifies which man thought so. To clarify this, the first sentence is built to stand WITHOUT the parentheses, because the man has most likely been identified prior to this, while the second sentence is built to stand WITH the parentheses, because it is likely there are several men, so to whom the statement is referring must be specified. Although, if this is the case, the commas may even be redundant in the above sentence.

As I already stated, the em dash (and en dash) can also be used at the end of the sentence, often to create shock value or to clarify a statement. The em dash then has the same use as a colon.

The man looked like someone I recognized—Santa Claus.

In 1939, the most devastating war ever began—World War II.

Like the comma, the two dashes are versatile and have many uses. They aren't necessary in any way, unlike the comma, but they are a useful ally in the battle against illiteracy. For everyday usage, I would not recommend them, but for authors or others who write a lot—such as bloggers—they are highly recommended marks. So, to summarize, if what is written within the “parentheses” is not needed to understand the sentence and simply adds information, use a dash. If you are unsure which to use, stick to the comma.

So that is a lot of grammar to think about! And this was just about punctuation marks! As a final disclaimer, I would like to say that I may be wrong about all this; I have not been educated in English at a University level, and all that I have written comes from my own personal experience, writing, reading, and looking up things on the internet. I would also like to say that the likeness to any persons, living or dead, in this blog post has been entirely coincidental.


My debut book and debut novel—Blades in the Dark and The Winds of Change—are due for publication on October 28 and December 9, respectively. Stay tuned for more news!