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.

  • 2
    No such thing as correct punctuation in English. It’s all a matter of style. Of course there, is incorrect punctuation.
    – David
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 19:06
  • 2
    If there is incorrect punctuation, there must also be correct punctuation.
    – Naomi
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 19:36
  • 1
    @Naomi - stated differently, you can't sort punctuation neatly into 'correct' and 'incorrect'
    – Jim Mack
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 20:00
  • 2
    The problem is that the comma leaves many nit-pickers commatose.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 0:46
  • 1
    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
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 2:08

2 Answers 2


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).


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.


Further reading:

Comma Splices and Run-On Sentences


  • Answer first ; collect points later. (+1).
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 1, 2020 at 2:10

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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