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How to Punctuate Breaks

by Sandra J. Judd, Copy Editor, Indexer, and Proofreader

One common point of confusion among writers is how to punctuate breaks in thought, sentence structure, or dialogue. Semicolons, em dashes, and ellipses can all be used for this purpose, but each has its own particular use.


A semicolon is most commonly placed between two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction and is used to show that the two phrases are more tightly connected than would be indicated by a period. However, a semicolon may also be used in the place of a comma preceding an independent clause that is introduced by a conjunction to effect a stronger, more dramatic pause between the clauses. For example:

Alice had always assumed that the beautiful mansion belonged to old money; yet the line of surfboards leaning against the house and sound of loud music blaring from somewhere inside now made her think otherwise.

Em Dashes

An em dash is used to indicate a much more sudden break, either in thought or sentence structure, or to indicate an interruption in dialogue. For example:

“He is—was—a gifted athlete, but since the accident things have been different.”

“Don’t you ever wonder—”
“No, I don’t. And you shouldn’t either, if you want to succeed here.”ftpen-style-dash-800px

Ellipses (or Suspension Points)

Suspension points are used to indicate faltering or fragmented speech, generally also indicating confusion or a lack of certainty. This is a much less abrupt break than would be indicated by an em dash. For example:

“But . . . I thought . . . is everyone ok?” she murmured as she staggered away from the crumpled car.

“I . . . I . . . oh, I’m so sorry!” she cried.

Sandra J. Judd has edited or proofread over 300 published books.

Copyright Sandra J. Judd

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