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In the idiom "shoot first, ask questions later", should the clauses be separated by a comma or semicolon? There are many derivations from that idiom to the point at which it has become a trope, but I'm still not clear on what is the correct punctuation.

I most frequently seen it written with a comma, but I've seen others such as semicolons and em-dashes (definitely a stylistic choice for the latter).

Idiom dictionaries seem to prefer the comma, but I would like to understand why.

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    No such thing as correct punctuation in English. It’s all a matter of style. Of course there, is incorrect punctuation. – David Apr 30 '20 at 19:06
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    If there is incorrect punctuation, there must also be correct punctuation. – Naomi Apr 30 '20 at 19:36
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    @Naomi - stated differently, you can't sort punctuation neatly into 'correct' and 'incorrect' – Jim Mack Apr 30 '20 at 20:00
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    The problem is that the comma leaves many nit-pickers commatose. – Hot Licks May 1 '20 at 0:46
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    There is a spectrum of punctuation usage in English. At each end are definites : 'correct' and 'incorrect'. In the middle is the 'style choice' area, where opinions and tastes differ but none has the right to dogmatically assert control. – Nigel J May 1 '20 at 2:08
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Ah, the dreaded comma splice. That's what happens when you have two independent clauses, no coordinating conjunction, and a comma—the weakling of punctuation marks—trying to separate them.

The Chicago Manual of Style notes:

Some readers will be distracted by it; some will consider it incorrect; a few will take it as one more sign that civilization is coming to an end. However, as Bryan Garner writes in Garner's Modern American Usage: "Most usage authorities accept comma splices when (1) the clauses are short and closely related, (2) there is no danger of a miscue, and (3) the context is informal."

Professor Tina Blue elaborates:

If the independent clauses are very short, especially if the subject is the same for both clauses, then a comma splice is probably acceptable. . . . When fairly short independent clauses express contrast, a comma splice is often the most effective way to punctuate the sentence. This is especially true if the first clause makes a negative statement, the second an affirmative one, or if the first clause is affirmative, and the second is negative (as in one form of question).

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Your clauses certainly qualify as short, closely related, informal, same-subject, and contrasty:

Shoot first, ask questions later.

And Julius Caesar's been getting away with this since forever:

I came, I saw, I conquered.

But if you're worried that your usage authority will take this as a sign that civilization is coming to an end, you have many other options:

Shoot first—ask questions later.

Shoot first (ask questions later).

Shoot first; ask questions later.

Shoot first, and ask questions later.

Shoot first. Ask questions later.

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Further reading:

Comma Splices and Run-On Sentences

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  • Answer first ; collect points later. (+1). – Nigel J May 1 '20 at 2:10
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The idiom refers to snap-judgment action, quickness of resolve. Of your three punctuation choices: comma, semicolon, or em-dash, the comma exerts the least amount of force towards slowing the reading of the phrase. It results in a cadence/tempo most congruent with the underlying idea.

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