One subway ride in Berlin, Deb asked me to explain the en-dash, the colon, and the semicolon. I’ll come clean and admit that I actually got excited to describe them. Grammar may make some groan, but when you see it as the mechanics of writing, you recognize how essential and, yes, wonderful it is. Instead, I cringe when I read a wanna-be writer who’s work is riddled with typos and grammatical errors. Grammar is a vital part of the craft, making good writing readable.
Some may argue that grammar is what the editor is for. Sure, s/he should add the final polish. However, grammar offers up the tricks of the trade. It’s the underpinning of writing. Grammar works hard for writers and does so much; it varies sentence length and adds emphasis, just to mention a couple of things. Imagine if an auto mechanic didn’t know when to use a wrench, or if a composer didn’t know all of the musical notes for a score. It’s a writer’s responsibility to know grammar.
Sadly, grammar wasn’t really taught when I was in school. The occasional teacher would take it upon herself to correct the class’ brutal mistakes on the board after returning papers. I actually learned most of the grammar I know by studying French, and Deb learned thanks to German. We’d both go back to English to make sense of what we were finally learning. How crazy is that? Only when I took an English degree in university did I have to take a grammar course as a prerequisite. What?! The system failed me until my late teens. Only then was grammar deemed worthy enough to teach. As you may guess, contrary to some schools of thought, I don’t believe people learn grammar by osmosis. That’s obvious from looking at work correspondence. Granted, avid readers and lovers of writing probably do have a better chance of absorbing the essentials.
Now let’s get back to the en-dash, the colon, and the semicolon. To me, the en-dash gives an extra breath that the comma just can’t muster. Also, visually, the en-dash draws a bit more attention. However, it’s informal attention. The hard-hitting attention-getter is the colon. It gives more umph than its country-cousin en-dash by rolling out the red carpet. The semicolon? I see it like balancing scales. The semicolon presents two related, complete sentences, which are often parallel. And the dot and hook are great for stating arguments.
Those were my answers to Deb’s seemingly simple question. Based on my excited response, I felt grammar deserved a post all its own. It doesn’t get enough fanfare and it’s so essential. Here’s hoping I didn’t commit some grammatical faux-pas in the above. I did proofread. ;)