Dick Weiss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch does some neat stuff on writing in his Weiss on Writing at STLtoday.com. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Recently he did a nice paragraph about punctuation and then took off about the exclamation point. His title was “Ban the exclamation point — period.” It’s a bit overstated, but that’s OK. I feel even stronger about banning MOST dashes. I say beware the dasher who when it doubt dashes. If you see a dash in the first paragraph, start counting them. Dashers are even worse when they have another point to make in a sentence and can think of no way to add it except after a dash. Another sentence usually works just fine. I had a teaching assistant once who said her high-school teacher told her class that they were allowed one dash per essay. I like that. Save the dash for dramatic contrast or emphasis.
Some members of our magazine faculty here at the Missouri School of Journalism got stirred up over something the person who is teaching Magazine Editing this semester wrote. He questioned the use of the semicolon, especially in direct quotations. He doesn’t mind the semicolon to break up lists that have commas inside them, but he wonders why and how we can determine whether two complete sentences or independent clauses are closely related enough to skip the coordinating conjunction and use the semicolon instead. I think that careful writers often do want to show a close relationship between two complete thoughts. For example, “He enjoyed writing; he wrote every chance he had.” Certainly we don’t want to join two complete sentences with simply a comma. A comma alone joining two independent clauses is a comma fault or a comma splice. I don’t allow them — ever. I do allow three or more short sentences to be joined with commas.
The professor questioned how we ever know a speaker means to have two thoughts closely related. Isn’t that interpreting what the speaker is trying to say? My answer is, first of all, that if the speaker does not use a conjunction, we shouldn’t insert one. Second, we always interpret what a speaker is saying or trying to say. People don’t speak using punctuation marks, except perhaps for Victor Borge. We insert punctuation marks such as commas, question marks, and even sometimes, exclamation points.
He emailed me that he thought semicolons in direct quotations looked funny. I emailed him back that he had a strange sense of humor. Of course, I don’t think we should overdo the semicolon between sentences, especially in direct quotations.
See how journalism professors spend their time?