Today’s tips for writers. Let’s talk about the ellipsis, em dash, semicolon and colon, and—the incomplete sentence.
I’m going to keep these, which are my personal guidelines, simple, a deviance from my sometimes turgid, flowery, or overblown prose. Many of you already know this, or choose to have your own style with these, and that is perfectly okay as far as I’m concerned. This is how I roll. And this post is not meant to be comprehensive. I’ve included a few tips here, so use the advice however you like.
- Attach two complete sentences when using the semicolon; this is the general rule.
- Separate items in a list, after following the colon. Use a semicolon for this only when the following items contain commas within themselves, or, if it would be ambiguous not to separate them in a more clearly defined manner.
- Take it easy with semicolons, dude. Relax… Semicolons are a turnoff for some readers. So, use semicolons sparingly. Many writers choose to simply end their sentence, a complete one or an incomplete one, with a period.
- Learn the subtle difference of using a semicolon, verses simply ending the sentence with a period and starting another. And do this, by reading, and writing. Write, write!
- Sprinkle them in for some variety. Never, do not ever use semicolons, for it’s another of the myriad ways to add spice to your prose. Use your complete toolbox for more punching power. But as stated previously, do use these rarely. Perhaps, only one or two per chapter.
- Extra bonus. The incomplete sentence! Also, use your incomplete sentences sparingly! I think incomplete sentences are fantastic, and another clever way to add variety. As a general rule, though, no more than one incomplete sentence per five-to-ten complete ones; although, this can vary greatly. Exceptions. Sometimes you need more emphasis, some of that punching power I mentioned earlier. Read the following example:
Joe is not a very nice guy. In fact, he totally stinks! No deodorant. Always farts. Never showers. Eats too much. He is a total slob!
- But. Reading one incomplete sentence. After another. After another. Endlessly. That is a turn off. Go back and fix your prose!
- The colon means there’s something coming, whoooo… Spooky. Muahahaha! Some information: something is to follow!
- Sometimes, but not all of the time, a list of things on the way! It could very well, be just one thing. Example:
Dick R. Jones farted: it stunk like a skunk.
Rick D. Jones, his brother, barfed: carrots, milky bile, and could it be—gasoline? At least, that’s how it smelled: like a corpse, like a dude who’d been soaking in stale gasoline; one who, had been boiled in it!
- Rule. Always make sure the sentence before a colon is a complete one. I follow this strictly—for clarity, and to further justify my use of the colon—for if it’s not, I go with a comma or period instead.
- Use sparingly, just like the semicolon, perhaps even more sparingly.
- Test for you! Would you use a colon in this example (after ‘added’):
Jack Blackenstack spoke for hours. I almost wanted to get up and walk out—or yell at him to, “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” Then finally, he finished, adding: “That’ll be all, folks!” And then he, so tersely and rudely, just walked out!
I wouldn’t use a colon there, although many people do. Unless you are going to make that your personal style, then generally, instead, I would roll like this: ...he finished, adding, “That’ll be all, folks!”
- Here’s another example of using a colon, and an incidence where you may want to use a semicolon as the separator:
Jessie found more fossils than Gary, Michelle, and Sally: at least 10 sand dollars, old ones from at least 50,000 B.C.; a broken, brown dinosaur tooth; and, she even found an entire triceratops!
- Use for a brief pause. Example:
Jerry is going to the…on second thought, he ain’t goin’ nowhere!
- Or: Jerry is going to the… on second thought, he ain’t going nowhere.
- I like the first example. I think it looks cleaner, and it leaves open the option to add the space when you need it; this way, you get more out of this cool special character. Language rocks! Roll how you want on this, though.
- Use the ellipsis to end a sentence, paragraph, chapter, or even an entire novel.
- An ellipsis can provide a sense of mystery, that something is about to happen. Spooky again! Tiptoes!
He strolled out the door, turned at the sidewalk, and then all hell broke loose…
It never happens like that, like, in the movies, and this, this final sockdolager; that was the final straw. And then Edwin H. Rubble turned his head, somberly, looking away from the mocking audience…
The spider grew larger. It was not over, NOT BY FAR, and it kept on growing, and growing, and GROWING…
- STRICT RULE! Do not use an ellipsis for interruptions! Example:
“Jess, why don’t you just…”
“No, Mom!” Jess interrupted, blaring. “I will NOT shut up. Not this time! And things are going to be different around here, starting right now or I am putting you in the old-folk’s home!”
Now, I repeat. Do not use an ellipsis for interruptions! Use the em dash, emphasis dash, or “double dash,”—whatever you want to call it—instead!
- Another example. Use the em dash, not the ellipsis, like this:
“I am not going to the old-folk’s home, and it you even try—”
“I said shut up, Mom—” Jess made a fist and her face became a ripe tomato. “—and I mean it! You shut up right now, or I’ll gonna put you in one myself—with this!” Her fist was a white-knuckle thunderstorm, and Mom finally ceded. TIP: Notice the how I used the em dashes to break the dialog, allowing a perfect spot for a plain ol’ sentence!
- Use the ellipsis very sparingly. Perhaps…more sparingly than the semicolon and colon, in that particular order.
- Never, do not use the ellipsis. It is another way to spice up your prose, Use everything ya got!
The magnificent em dash!
- I love it—and sometimes people say I use the em dash too much!
- Use the em dash! Use it as much as you like. But as with anything, you can still overdo it. Don’t. Find a balance that works for you, and don’t piss off your readers. Or do, it that’s how you roll! (sinister chuckles, coming from—somewhere!)
- Use the “em” dash when you want to “emphasize” what’s next. Example:
And then it hit me—I’ll never be able to play dodgeball again! Yes! Because I never want to!
- Use the em dash to signify a pause in dialog or prose. Example:
“Johnny—please, please, don’t do that to me anymore,” Elizabeth sobbed.
“But, Liz—I, I thought—I thought you liked it when I gave you a booty rub?”
“I—I do—” Liz’s stutter seemed as if a ghost was punching her in the back. “—it’s just that… Oh, forget it, you know I was talking about what you did after my booty rub!”
- Use an em dash for interruptions, NOT the ellipsis!
- Use the em dash like you would parenthesis, too. I think parenthesis are ugly, so I use them less than any of the above. But, I do use them. Strictly, I adhere to the following of my #1 rule. Use everything in your toolbox! This keeps the reader off guard, never totally being able to—figure you out! Here’s an example:
Johnny Knickernacker sucked his thumb—his toes, his lollypops, and his fingernails clean too—but he always managed to remain as healthy as someone who never sucked, anything!