Tag Archives: semicolons are not em dashes

#amwriting: wrangling that, which, and semicolons

em dash memeSemicolons are misused morsels of punctuation. Some authors believe they are extra-long pauses: half-way between a comma and a (full stop)period. These bits of typographical madness litter their work.

Semicolons  are NOT extra-firm pauses. Em dashes or (if you are British) hyphens serve that function. Semicolons have a different place in the universe. For this post, we are going to look at semicolons as joiners.

The proper use of a semicolon is to join two short sentences that are directly related to each other, turning them into a compound sentence.

No one enjoys reading a choppy narrative. Too many short sentences can be distracting and hard to get into. The way we smooth the narrative is to join short sentences into longer, compound sentences. But frequently, that creates run-on sentences. (I am the queen of those.)

  1. Short and choppy: I’d love some ice-cream. We should go to the Dairy Queen.
  2. Compound sentence: I’d love some ice-cream; we should go to the Dairy Queen.

Comma Splice MemeYou do not join independent clauses with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice.

  1. WRONG: It’s nearly half past five, we can’t reach town before dark.
  2. BETTER: It’s nearly half past five; we can’t reach town before dark.

The two clauses that are joined together with a semicolon should relate to each other. The above sentences work because the lateness of the day means they might have to travel after dark.

  1. WRONG: We should go to the Dairy Queen; it’s nearly half past five.
  2. BETTER: We should go to the Dairy Queen. It’s nearly half past five.

If time is actually the issue in the above sentence, and you absolutely MUST use a semicolon or you will explode, say, “The Dairy Queen is about to close; it’s nearly half past five.”

I generally try to find alternatives to semicolons, but I don’t dislike them, as some editors do. I think they are too easily abused and misused, so I encourage myself and my authors to think outside the semicolon.

Another sticky area for the some authors are the words ‘that’ and ‘which.’ They are often difficult for new authors to get the hang of. They are not interchangeable, and overuse of the word ‘that’ cannot be cured by using ‘which’ instead.

‘That’ is a pronoun:

  1. Used to identify a specific person or thing observed by the speaker.

“That’s his dog on the curb.”

  1. Referring to a specific thing previously mentioned, known, or understood.

“That’s a good idea.”

‘That’ is also a determiner:

  1. Used to identify a specific person or thing observed or heard by the speaker.

“Look at that house fire.”

  1. Referring to a specific thing previously mentioned, known, or understood.

“He lived in Tacoma at that time.”

‘That’ is also an adverb

  1. Indicating to such a degree; so.

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

And ‘that’ is a conjunction:

  1. Introducing a subordinate clause expressing a statement or hypothesis.

“She claimed that she was married.”

‘That’ can also be a literary conjunction expressing a wish or regret:

“Oh, that I had known this before.”


‘Which’ is a pronoun:

  1. asking for information specifying one or more people or things from a definite set.

“Which are the best diapers for newborns?”

Which’ is a determiner:

  1. used referring to something previously mentioned when introducing a clause giving further information.

“A house on Black Lake, which is for sale.”

Some people will rather forcefully say you must never use the word ‘that,’ but those people are clearly unaware of the larger grammatical picture—do not listen to them.


So, when do we use the word ‘that’ in an appropriate and defensible fashion?  After all, too many ‘that’s’ make the prose boring and forgettable.

So does Grammar Girl, (Mignon Fogarty) on her awesome website for writers with questions. This website is an invaluable resource for folks like me, with some education, but no memory of what we were actually taught.

that which does not kill meThere are instances where only ‘that’ will suffice. When do we use the word that?

We use it when we have something called a ‘Restrictive Clause’:

Quote from Grammar Girl, “A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence.”  She goes on to give a specific example of a restrictive clause: “Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.”  See?  Not just any gems elicit forgiveness in this sentence. Only gems that sparkle bring about clemency. In this sentences, forgiveness is restricted to one kind of gem.

So, now we know about restrictive clauses, but what about nonrestrictive clauses? Again we turn to the Grammar Girl and she says, “A nonrestrictive clause is something that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. You can think of a nonrestrictive clause as simply additional information.”

Again the Grammar Girl gives the example, “Diamonds, which are expensive, often elicit forgiveness.”  The word ‘which’ isn’t really necessary, as the meaning of the sentence would not be changed if you left it out. “Diamonds are expensive, but often elicit forgiveness.”

stop don't click replace allOften the sentence is better without the words ‘that’ or ‘which,’ but each instance must be examined individually, to ensure you are making the best choice.

This is yet another time when making a global search for these words is a good idea. (And never choose ‘replace all’.) On an individual basis, decide which word is the correct word, ‘that’ or ‘which’ and then decide whether to delete it or keep it. If the sentence makes good sense without it, lose it.


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