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Help! I've read everything there is on Google re: semicolon and dash use and, whilst I understand all this, I still struggle deciding when to use a semicolon over a dash to join two independent clauses. I'm an avid endasher (from UK, so endash used more than emdash), and due to their increasing prevalence in newspapers etc, I think I'm a little desensitised to them. Consider the following:

Sorry I didn't get round to helping; it's been a difficult week
Sorry I didn't get round to helping - it's been a difficult week

I couldn't go to work; I was feeling too sick
I couldn't go to work - I was feeling too sick

I ate all the food; I was starving
I ate all the food - I was starving

That's not borrowing; that's stealing
That's not borrowing - that's stealing

Now, I feel I say all of these aloud with some sort of emphasis, so I naturally hover over the emdash. So my question is... How do I decide whether my joining clause is dramatic enough to warrant a dash?

I understand dashes are more frequent in informal writing (and, if I'm being honest, I'd find myself 'stuffy' using them in emails etc) but, regardless, I'd like to at least feel I know when the semicolon is more appropriate, even if I choose not to use it!

Can anyone help? Thanks in advance!

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Personally, I don't think that either a semi-colon or an en-dash is appropriate in your examples. I would use a colon or an em-dash. (I also don't think that an en-dash v. and em-dash is an American v. British issue: they have different purposes (see http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/HyphensEnDashesEmDashes/faq0002.html).)

A semi-colon is part-way between a comma and a full-stop: it is not for juxtapositioning two clauses in the way you have -- that requires a colon or an em-dash!

This article http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/em-dash.html has a useful summary about em-dashes v. colons and other punctuation.

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    Re "requires a semi-colon"—you mean "colon"? – Pacerier Oct 20 '17 at 7:19
  • UK writers, in my experience, don't subscribe to the 'different uses' style choice. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 24 at 14:49
  • @EdwinAshworth Are you referring to (1) colon v. semi-colon; (2) em-dash v. en-dash; or (3) a different comparison. By 'writer', do you mean profession writers (e.g. authors); or just any British person writing something? This former patent attorney certainly subscribes to distinguishing between between the various types of punctuation; and also whether end-quotes go before or after a full-stop depending on whether the quotation also includes the beginning of the sentence! – TrevorD Jul 25 at 16:02
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    'I also don't think that an en-dash v. and em-dash is an American v. British issue: they have different purposes' begs the question. They have different purposes according to the styles adopted by many (but not the NYT online) in the US (& probably some in the UK). There is no Punctuation Supremo saying that the em-dash must be used, and used differently from the en-dash. Some choose to espouse such styles; others don't. / Using 'gas' for 'petrol' ... – Edwin Ashworth Jul 25 at 16:15
  • could be claimed to be disadvantageous, as 'gas' has a more fundamental meaning, in fairly common use. In the UK, a major usage is for the methane piped to most houses. But I've not heard many people saying "It's not just a UK / US thing ..." (with the implication that it's wrong). – Edwin Ashworth Jul 25 at 16:16
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I've never encountered a rule set in stone, but I understand that generally it's okay to use both. I use a semicolon when I'm adding something that's not necessarily directly related to the statement. So parts of a sentence separated by a semicolon could really just be two separate sentences. I use a dash when I'm extending and/or emphasizing the thought in some way.

Example:

I watched the car go by; I felt paralyzed with fear.

I watched the car go by - kicking up a flurry of leaves behind it.

This is probably completely arbitrary but that's how I use them. :)

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I think of it as sort of the difference between a continuation (semicolon) and an afterthought (dash).

"I read the books; the second was better than the first."

"I saw the movie - it was great!"

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In the first example, I think it would be better just to join the sentence with ",because." In the second, I would use a colon. For the third, a dash. For the last, I would use a comma.

  • Please explain your reasoning. – TrevorD Apr 16 '16 at 16:40
  • @Steam: re "comma"—why not emdash? – Pacerier Oct 20 '17 at 7:23

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