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I recently read "The Cask of Amontillado" for pleasure, and I found this passage:

He had a weak point –this Fortunato –although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially; –I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

I found it most peculiar that Poe followed a semicolon with a space and then an em-dash. It seemed natural and made sense.

I've never seen this style of punctuation in any other literature I've read. Is this something that is okay to use in similar situations? What's the consensus on this usage?

  • How could it hurt to drop all before, and concentrate on “In this respect I did not differ from him materially; –I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could”? If what went before matters, please explain how. If an em- as opposed to any other dash matters, please explain how? Two or three or more likely four or five hundred years ago which dash was used for what mattered a lot… in those days, literate people cared. Nowadays, however, 99% of readers call a dash a dash. If you think there are still rules about that, can you name and quote a style guide… – Robbie Goodwin Jun 4 '18 at 22:44
  • Further… Can you see that while “I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could” is far from meaningless, it’s at least equally far from any clear meaning, in the context of your posted passage? Either way, the real Question is about the semi-colon, not its combination with any dashes and in that context no, it’s simply not appropriate. – Robbie Goodwin Jun 4 '18 at 22:45
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Good catch - it shows careful reading. But consider that the story was published in 1846 (and probably written the year before). Today we might use either the semicolon or the em-dash (but not both). Typically, the part after a semicolon is a complete sentence - one that is closely related to the first part (also usually a complete sentence).

(I'm glad to hear you read it for pleasure - rather than as punishment.)

  • Why would anyone not read this for pleasure? It's an engaging story by a great storyteller :) – Josh Jan 21 '14 at 19:15
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I'd say that there are differences in length-of-pause indication signalled by different choices of punctuation. From quick run-on to full pause for thought, I'd suggest:

In this respect I did not differ from him materially, as I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

In this respect I did not differ from him materially: I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

In this respect I did not differ from him materially; I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

In this respect I did not differ from him materially - I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

In this respect I did not differ from him materially. I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

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