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I am very confused by these, and even when I understand other people's usage of them I find it difficult to know when to employ them myself. For this reason, I am trying to make my own examples and see if I get them correct. Please understand, English is not my first language, but I have never learned grammar in my native language either. I hope that what I'm saying is comprehensible to you.

In the following examples, I'll be using a period in place of the em dash or semicolon, because I am utterly confused as to which one should be used.

  1. English is not my first language, and I'm having trouble with the grammar. Specifically semicolons and dashes.

  2. Don't ask Jim to fix your car. That sort of thing would be better handled by Steve.

  3. The question isn't what you can take away from this, but what you can learn in the process. / The question isn't what you can take away from this. It is what you can learn in the process.

Normally I would use a semicolon in all of these instances, but recently I have come to learn that this is incorrect usage.

Any help is greatly appreciated.

  • A possible duplicate of this question? (I think I'd use dash/semicolon/dash, fwiw.) – starwed Jan 26 '13 at 19:55
  • I'd only change the first example (though a dash in the second would be fine): English is not my first language, and I'm having trouble with the grammar – specifically, with the use of semicolons and dashes. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 26 '13 at 23:45
  • Note that a semicolon would be perfectly correct in the second sentence, and in the second version of the third sentence. – Michael Seifert Nov 30 '17 at 16:04
3

Dashes can be used in place of parentheses to indicate an aside or qualifying statement. I don't think either has a place in any of your examples.

Generally speaking, for the same reason you're having a hard time understanding their use, it's a good idea to avoid using semicolons altogether. The semicolon is intended to separate two sentences where the second sentence clarifies or extends the first. In practice, they're often used incorrectly and there is ample evidence that they confuse readers and translation software. A comma or period would often suffice.

It's good advice to use the simplest punctuation possible. That often means using the simplest sentence construction possible as well. Here is how I would punctuate your examples:

English is not my first language. I'm having trouble understanding the punctuation, specifically semicolons and dashes.

Note here that the wording is more specific so that the second clause merely clarifies. It could be thought of as a contraction of this more verbose version:

English is not my first language. I'm having trouble understanding the punctuation. Specifically, I'm having trouble understanding semicolons and dashes.

Or, if you really felt the need to use that spare semicolon:

English is not my first language. I'm having trouble understanding the punctuation; specifically, I'm having trouble understanding semicolons and dashes.

Your second example is fine as is; it's completely clear in meaning as two sentences (see what I did there?).

Your third sentence provides a great example of the many ways to associate two sentences. The first is very clear, but awkward and wordy. The second is probably most confusing to readers because the second sentence is quasi-grammatical. "it" implies "The question" here. The third is a rather elegant construction to my native English comprehension. Does the conjunction "but" imply the same meaning to you, however?

The question isn't what you can take away from this. The question is what you can learn in the process.

The question isn't what you can take away from this; it is what you can learn in the process.

The question isn't what you can take away from this, but what you can learn in the process.

These all mean exactly the same thing. From your perspective, take the construction that makes the most sense and use that consistently in your writing. Much great writing can be done without any semicolons at all.

Finally, note that your last example is a rhetorically loaded construction in English. I'm sure "Not this, but that" phrasings are encountered in many languages. Here's a famous example:

Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

In these cases, simple, repeated, parallel constructions work in your favor in spite of the punctuation:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness...

Be clear. Be consistent. Remember that many writers don't actually know the rules of punctuation. My apologies for rambling.

  • Re "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country:" shouldnt semicolon be used? – Pacerier Oct 22 '17 at 15:46
  • The sentence "The question isn't what you can take away from this, but what you can learn in the process." is not grammatically correct. The comma should be ommitted because the second phrase is not a clause: "The question isn't what you can take away from this but what you can learn in the process." – acidnbass Mar 29 '18 at 21:49
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Here's an apt description, folks. Take note and enjoy.


In most cases, you cannot interchange em dashes and semicolons; however, there is one case that makes this possible. I mention this in the section on em dashes.

Em dashes are used for arbitrary "breaks" in syntax. Semicolons are used to conjoin directly related independent clauses.


Em dashes

Em dashes provide a brief escape from "grammatical" syntax so you can express or emphasize a word or idea that is loosely or abstractly connected to the subject of a given text—the word or idea may not logically follow the preceding clause, but adds to or expands on the latter's content. Types of clauses that serve this purpose include appositives, asides, interjections, and so on. Em dashes are also used to express long pauses.

At first glance, one may perceive em dashes and parentheses as interchangeable; however, this is only true in a syntactic sense—not semantically. In other words, you may use them to grammatically achieve the same sentence structure, but the affected clause's shade of meaning (or "delivery") will differ in each case.

Parentheses tend to focus on expressing "afterthoughts," terse explanations, and paraphrases that logically (concretely) follow clauses; em dashes, however, are more open-ended and carry more emphasis.

Because semicolons are a rather "one-dimensional" type of punctuation while em dashes are multipurpose, semicolons can sometimes be replaced with em dashes—but not vice versa. The main factor in choosing whether to use a semicolon or an em dash (if you're playing your cards right) is whether the clause that the punctuation introduces is more explanatory or expository in nature. If it's the former, use a semicolon; if the latter, use an em dash. As you have just witnessed, semicolons are excellent for achieving something called "parallelism." Both punctuations are suitable for elaboration.

Finally, there are cases that may allow you to swap a comma with an em dash, but only if the comma introduces a dependent clause that serves as a description of the subject preceding it (e.g. "He went to go talk to his neighbor, an inveterate alcoholic who fights trees in his backyard.") Once again, the em dash is preferable if you want to emphasize the description of the friendly neighbor.


Semicolons

Semicolons are used to transition to a clause that explains or elaborates on the one preceding it. Semicolons very often occur alongside a conjunction or a phrase that begins with one: "and," "but," "yet," "however," "although," and so on. Semicolons can only conjoin full-bodied, independent clauses; because of this, it is almost never possible to correctly replace an em dash with a semicolon.

Additionally, semicolons are used in long and verbose lists in which the use of commas to separate items may cause confusion or ambiguity (due to commas and other punctuation occurring within each item of the list).

One cannot use semicolons in place of parentheses or em dashes for various reasons that should be obvious by now: semicolons offer explanations or elaborations that are mostly more comprehensive than those that parentheses are intended to provide; unlike scatterbrained em dashes, semicolons stay on topic; and, as mentioned earlier, semicolons never lead to a fragment (a dependent clause that might be missing a subject, for instance).

Emphasis, another factor in choosing what punctuation to use, is normally not taken into consideration when a semicolon is needed, for a clause introduced by a semicolon may be too long—too concerned with an entire series of details—to emphasize a singular word or idea.

Beware: swapping a comma with a semicolon will dig a grave and throw the English language in it—without even building a coffin to the put the nail in.

In general, semicolons tend to be used in more "formal" and academic language, while em dashes are especially suitable for writing dialogue and employing the "stream-of-consciousness" style; regardless, no use of any given punctuation is restricted to one style of writing.


Conclusion

Make use of all tools at your disposal. Mastering syntax and punctuation is especially important in the English language because the comparably low range of inflections that English enforces necessitates proper arrangement of words, and I see (very subtle) syntactic mistakes that lead to semantic ones everyday, almost every time I read the news or virtually any amateur writing.

Here's an example of such a mistake:

Just like a checking account, you can open a health savings account in which you can keep funds that roll over from one year to the next!

Can you see the problem here? Here's a hint: it's not the punctuation. I'll let you folks pick your brains apart and find the "mistake."

Godspeed.

1

I would punctuate this way:

  1. Use a colon.
  2. Leave as is, but a semicolon would work as well.
  3. Either version is fine. The two sentences of the second could also be separated by a semicolon.
  • A colon for the first one would not make sense. Do you mean a semicolon or a period? – Erik Humphrey Sep 9 '16 at 17:45
  • Nope. A colon, signifying a summation or continuation. "... trouble with the grammar: specifically, semicolons and dashes." – Robusto Sep 9 '16 at 17:53
1

I like the use of em-dash in nested appositives. Simple appositives only require commas. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a great piece on effective use of the em-dash. The semi-colon can indicate transition in some context or another-- feeling, position or contradiction. Sometimes I decide which to use based on either appositive effect or transition effect.

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There's a good article at http://www.englishgrammartutor.com/punctuation.htm - see the section titled 'The dash and the colon as internal sentence markers', in particular. The article at http://www.powershow.com/view/2aa939-ZTIzN/Punctuation_in_English_powerpoint_ppt_presentation is also very informative, and I like the following comment:

The dash – used sensitively – can add a dimension to the meaning of a sentence over and above the sum total of the weight of the words. The order, the balance, the nature of the vocabulary used give dimension, too, but the nuances, the humour, the point, the comment implicit in a sentence can often be brought out by the careful use of the dash. It is a punctuation mark that is the more effective for being used sparingly: when it appears it needs to pack its own punch.

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The question is not dash v semicolon: in the examples given a comma would be perfectly adequate.

  1. English is not my first language and I'm having trouble with the grammar, specifically semicolons and dashes. (No comma needed after 'language'.)

  2. Don't ask Jim to fix your car, that sort of thing would be better handled by Steve. (A dash would also work here.)

  3. The question isn't what you can take away from this but what you can learn in the process. OR The question isn't what you can take away from this. It is what you can learn in the process. (Both of these work equally well but it's a question of style: the second version is more emphatic. It would work well in a speech.)

You can get away with random dashes if writing informally but should use them sparingly and correctly in formal writing. That's a useful PPT link @Edwin has posted, to quote:

"It is not acceptable to use dashes in a slovenly manner to avoid having to decide whether a full stop is required or not." (Not that you were doing this - but others do.)

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  1. This is best handled by the em dash. Although the second sentence does elucidate and qualify the first sentence, it reads, to me, like an interjection of sorts. The reason the colon does not work here is because the first sentence is not in dire need of elaboration. The second sentence is a helpful, "added thought" that seems most appropriately indicated with the em dash.
  2. This is best handled by the colon. This is because the first sentence, in a loose sense, is not a completely explained idea. The second sentence is (in my opinion) a necessary elucidation and the colon, to me, indicates a strong qualifying clause to follow.
  3. The colon is best used here as well for the same reasons as the second sentence. The first sentence is, in some way, incomplete without the elaboration in the second sentence.

In general, semicolons are losing their popularity; however, this is not to say they do not have their place.

To qualify a preceding clause: an appropriate use of the colon.

The em dash tends to address ideas that seem to come "ad-lib," or an interruption of thought--but they can be used, in an informal sense, in place of many punctuations with success.

0

Semicolons can often replace conjunctions which precede a result or reason, conjunctions such as "because", "since", "for", etc. For instance, "he went to the milk bar because he wanted some curly wurly bars" could have 'because' replaced with a semicolon: "he went to the milkbar; he wanted some curly wurly bars". Number 2 could have a semi-colon, but it's not necessary. Semi-colons can also juxtapose two different ideas. So 3 could have a semicolon as well.

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I was taught in school that use of a semi-colon should only be where it could be substituted with a full-stop (period, in American English). It should (or rather, can) be used to indicate that the second part follows on from the first. So the first example should definitely not be a semi-colon, as the second part has no verb, and thus cannot form a sentence on it's own.

If I were writing this sentence, I would actually use a comma. I don't think it forms a sufficient break in the sentence to constitute an en-dash, and you may risk over-using the en-dash, which can make sentences appear stilted. I would also take out the first comma.

English is not my first language and I'm having trouble with the grammar, specifically semicolons and dashes.

Why not a colon as others have suggested? I tend to use the rule that colons should only be before a list, or as an augmented period to indicate that the second part defines or gives an example of the first.

So, by that logic, the second example should probably be either left as-is, or use a semi-colon:

Don't ask Jim to fix your car; that sort of thing would be better handled by Steve.

The first version of the third example is fine. The second version could optionally have a semi-colon too, as the part after the semi-colon follows on from the first:

The question isn't what you can take away from this; it is what you can learn in the process.

Generally, I would avoid using the en-dash unless you're sure that it is correct and clarifies to the reader, especially when writing formally. The most accepted formal use-case is probably in place of brackets (parentheses) to form an aside – but even then, if I had used an en-dash around the word "parentheses", it would have looked weird, so perhaps the rule there is to only use it where the aside is of sufficient length.

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