Sharon from East Lothian sent in a punctuation question: I have noticed that the long dash is being used more and more instead of a colon or semi-colon. Can you advise if this is good practice and if so, when exactly should it be used?
Although my answer is going to be based on grammatically accepted rules, I feel rules are there to be broken (as long as you know what they are before doing so). So, from my point of view as a writer, if it looks right in context and feels right, I believe in going with gut instinct. However, as I said, in order to break rules for effect, you first have to understand them.
If the first part of the sentence is complete (an independent clause) and is followed by a list, quotation, explanation or text to illustrate what has gone before, then a colon should be used to indicate to the reader that a list of some kind follows.
Margaret hated so many things about John: his arrogance, his cruelty and his inability to listen to anyone else’s point of view.
I have such a lot to get through today: doctor’s appointment, shopping and getting the car serviced.
A long dash, on the other hand, doesn’t need a complete sentence to precede it and is used to show a summing up, extension, or even a reversal of what has gone before.
The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who – these are all great groups from the sixties.
Whenever James frowned she spoke without thinking – making her look stupid.
She’d always thought of herself as bright – until James undermined her confidence.
A semicolon is used to connect two complete clauses into one sentence. Probably the most famous example would be from Dickens. Each of the two clauses below could be written as a complete sentence.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
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