The English language has many interesting components to work with, and one of my favorite ways to add personality to my writing is through punctuation! In grade school, you learned about the different end marks: periods, exclamation marks, and question marks. You probably also learned about commas, colons, semicolons, and hyphens.
There is a whole world of punctuation that adds personality and readability to your writing.
Perhaps the most common punctuation mark, commas are most often used as a mark of separation within a sentence. Commas are a great tool for adding a pause to a sentence without bringing too much attention to the break. However, there are other punctuation marks that accomplish the same thing, albeit more obviously.
Let’s take a look at some alternative typographical devices.
Colons and semicolons
Colons (:) and semicolons (;) are some of the most underrated punctuation marks, in my opinion. Colons are used to write out times (5:30 p.m.), ratios (1:3), and Bible verses (Psalm 55:1), among other things, but they can also be used in running text to set up a list or even join two independent clauses.
Emily really enjoys her hobbies: cooking, taking photos, writing, and reading.
I don’t have time to cook dinner tonight: Bible study starts as soon as I get home from work.
Note that when you use colons to set up a list, it should not interrupt the flow of the sentence. If the items are incorporated into the sentence (i.e., Emily really enjoys cooking, taking photos, writing, and reading.), refrain from using a colon.
Semicolons, on the other hand, have a more limited use. First, semicolons are used to join independent clauses that are not already joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction.
I don’t have time to cook dinner tonight; order takeout using my credit card.
Second, semicolons can be used to separate items in a list, similar to commas. However, semicolons are generally used when elements in a list contain commas.
Which breakfast sandwich would you like: ham, egg, and cheese; sausage, egg, and cheese; or egg and cheese?
Em and en dashes
Em (—) and en (–) dashes are not hyphens, rather, they are typographical devices named after their sizes: the lengths of the characters m and n, respectively.
Em dashes are one of my favorite punctuation marks because they have so many uses. According to The Punctuation Guide, “the em dash is perhaps the most versatile punctuation mark”—and for good reason. The em dash can be used in place of commas, parenthesis, and colons. However, the em dash must be used sparingly to avoid cluttering up a sentence. (The Punctuation Guide suggests no more than two appearances per sentence.)
Emily’s husband—a New England native—did not try grits or sweet tea until he moved to the South for college. (Used in place of commas)
I read more books in 2019—50 to be exact—than I have in any other year. (Used in place of parenthesis)
After a few minutes of concentrating, I finally remembered my mom’s favorite color—teal. (Used in place of a colon)
Em dashes are a fun typographic device that add some variety to your writing. That being said, em dashes are often viewed as being informal or harsh, whereas commas fly calmly under the radar.
En dashes, while not a grammatical element of punctuation, are worth mentioning, as they are different from both em dashes and hyphens. The three primary uses for en dashes include …
- Spans or ranges of numbers (Emily attended Liberty University from 2015–2019.)
- Scores (The team won 21–10.)
- Conflict or connect (The Lynchburg–Greenville train runs overnight.)
. . .
It may take some time for unfamiliar punctuation marks to feel natural in your writing. That’s why challenging yourself to learn new things is important!
Spend a few minutes every day intentionally writing sentences using unfamiliar punctuation marks. You can also review your writing and see if alternative punctuation improves your writing, which leads to our last talking point.
Don’t use unusual or unfamiliar punctuation for the sake of being different. Take the tone, rhythm, and type of piece into consideration when making your punctuation choices. If you’re writing an academic paper, use a comma instead of an em dash. When writing emails, em dashes and lists preceded by colons may guide the reader through the message faster than long-form text with unobtrusive punctuation.
Writing involves both skill and strategy. By learning how and why to use different types of punctuation, you’ll have the tools you need to write effectively and make an impact!
Emily Babbitt is a promotional writer for Liberty University Marketing and a member of the Write2Ignite planning team. Learn more about her here.