Dash or semi-colon? Ban them both

Never mind the debate over the future of the regional press and public service broadcasting. The latest issue of Standpoint magazine has tackled an issue which we journalists can really get stuck into.

It’s the dash versus the semi-colon.

Citing an example from the Sunday Telegraph of the increasing use in journalism of the em-dash, Lionel Shriver writes that it is “a punctuation mark that is raging through contemporary prose as rapaciously as clostridium difficile is contaminating our hospitals…The em-dash is eating semicolons for breakfast.”

And she has a point. I’ve been guilty myself. But no more.

As for the semi-colon, I have to say that I am with Kurt Vonnegut on that one. As he said:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

While I have absolutely nothing against hermaphrodites, I do agree that semi-colons are neither fish nor fowl. And what’s more they are ugly.

They have absolutely no place in a news story, and very little place in a news feature.

Journalists should keep it simple. Commas and full-stops should suffice. Sometimes semi-colons are unavoidable, such as when you are writing complicated lists, but overall they are to be avoided. Especially in, God forbid, intros.

Over-use of the em-dash does encourage a sloppy approach to grammar, so let’s ban them too. Or at least use them a lot less.

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