If you grew up writing, whether you were forced to by teachers or wanted to as a creative outlet, you probably have at least a basic understanding of how to punctuate any written communication. But then, maybe you’ve forgotten. Or you read something that makes you question everything you ever thought you knew. I’m here to reassure you–you can read these guidelines and say, “Yes! I knew that already!” Or you can say, “Oh, that’s what I thought but it’s good to know for sure.” Or you might say, “I never knew that. Good thing April clarified it for me.” Whatever your responses, I hope these are helpful.

Commas, Dashes and Semicolons

Using commas—seems straightforward, doesn’t it? And for the most part I see them used correctly. However there are a couple of instances where I see consistent misuse: using only one comma to set off a parenthetical sort of phrase (if you could reasonably use parentheses instead, there should be one at each end of that phrase) or ‘comma splicing’, which means joining two independent clauses with a comma (sometimes it’s okay; more often it isn’t).

Here’s where dashes* and semicolons come in—they’re a great way to join splices without using a humdrum period. If you simply want to join the sentences, use a semicolon; if you really want to give the second bit some emphasis, the dash is your friend. Dashes and semicolons are a great way to add subtle flair to your writing. When used strategically, they underscore the meaning of your text with (seemingly) little effort. Your reader will know exactly how to read/hear dialogue or narrative because you led them there with your delivery.

Not sure how to put that into practice? Read your work aloud. Pay attention to where you naturally pause, or break, or where you rush on. A pause might be a comma or a semicolon. A break—depending on the sentence—could be a period or a dash. If you rush from one idea to the next you may want a steady flow of words to convey the run-on nature of your, or your character’s, thoughts while using the comma, strategically of course, to string your phrases (and sentences) together.

Have fun with punctuation! Next time you sit down to write, make it a goal to use a mark you normally shy away from. The beauty of it is you can always edit your work (or have someone do it for you). No one—probably—will die because you used a comma instead of a semicolon or period and, more likely, you’ll learn from experience how you best like to use the whole gamut of our marks.

*by dash, I mean an em-dash, which is the one most often used in narrative fiction. I’ll save the others for another time.