usage in writing

Usage in Writing Part I

Winston Churchill affected the fate of his nation with the power of his words. In his autobiography, he said—

By being so long in the lowest form (at Harrow) I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys… I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence—which is a noble thing.

The components of writing break down into two categories—usage and style. Usage refers to correctness, whereas style refers to voice. Most of us have read a book or two with near perfect usage, only to walk away from the experience resenting the time we invested. Similarly, a few of us have read a manuscript with an apparent finesse of style, but—well—we could only speculate at what the author had intended to say.

The latter scenario occurs less frequently, only because most editors guard against the incredibility of poor grammar. Make no mistake, though—good writing employs both. Perfect usage, in the void of a compelling style, drains the interest from a curious mind. And a tight, well-paced and vivid style, without the order of usage, produces a wild stallion of a read.

A lot of young writers want only to create and shrink back from the mention of terms like grammar, syntax, and diction. But writing well is a discipline, and it necessitates that somewhere down the road you learn how to use the language.

Let’s look at some common components of usage.


There are five ways to indicate a pause shorter than a period.

  • em dash
  • colon
  • semicolon
  • comma

Notice that the ellipsis (…) is not included on the list. Using an ellipsis as a pause  is incorrect usage. An ellipsis indicates missing text excerpted from an original source, whether fictitious, actual dialogue, or written expression.

Ellipses for gaps, dashes for interruptions.


Use the em dash (—) to indicate a sudden or unexpected break in the normal flow of the sentence. It can also be used in place of parentheses or commas if the meaning is clarified. Usually the em dash gives special emphasis to the material it sets off.

On the keyboard two hyphens without a space between words will create an em dash  (—).

  • Could you—I hate to ask!—help me move these crates?
  • When we left town—in the midst of a record snowfall—everyone came to see us off.
  • She said—we all heard it—”There’s no homework during Christmas break.”
  • My favorite studies—for as long as I can remember—are science and writing.
  • The sight of the Andromeda Galaxy—especially when seen for the first time—is astounding.

An em dash is often used to summarize a series of ideas that have already been expressed.

  • Freedom of speech, freedom to vote, and freedom of assembly—upon these cornerstones democracy rises.
  • Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—the macronutrients we need to sustain healthy lives.
  • James, Howard, Marianne, Angela, Catherine—all felt betrayed by their colleague.

The em dash is also used to note the author of a quotation that is set off in the text.

Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so. —William Shakespeare

Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine. —William Blake


The colon (:) is the sign of a pause about midway in length between the semicolon and the period. It usually can be replaced by a comma and sometimes by a period. It signals that more information on the subject follows.

The colon is used to introduce a word, a phrase, or a complete statement (clause) that emphasizes, illustrates, or exemplifies what has been stated.

  • He had only one desire in life: to play baseball.
  • The weather that day was the most unusual I’d ever seen: It snowed and rained while the sun was still shining.

Use a capital letter if the word following the colon begins another complete sentence; but when the words following the colon are part of the sentence preceding it, use a lower case letter.

  • May I offer you a suggestion: don’t drive without your seat belts fastened.
  • The thought continued to perplex him: Where will I go next?

When introducing a series that illustrates or emphasizes what has already been stated, use the colon.

  • Only a few of the graduates were able to be there: Jamison, Mearns, Linkley, and Commoner.
  • For Omar Khayyam, a Persian poet, three things prove necessary for a paradise on earth: a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and one’s beloved.
  • In the basement, he kept some equipment for his experiments: the test tubes, some chemical agents, three sunlamps, and a Bunsen burner.


Semicolons (;) are sometimes called mild periods. They indicate a pause midway in length between the comma and the colon. Semicolons mark a formal style and prove sparse in more casual writing. To use them correctly, it is necessary to be able to recognize main clauses—complete ideas. When two main clauses occur in a single sentence without a connecting word (and, but, or, nor, for), the appropriate mark of punctuation is the semicolon.

  • It is not a good idea for you to leave the country right now; you should actually try to stay as long as you possibly can.
  • Music lightens life; literature deepens it.
  • In the past, boy babies were often dressed in blue; girls, in pink. (“Were often dressed” is understood in the second part of the sentence.)

Notice how the use of the comma, period, and semicolon gives a sentence a slightly different meaning.

  • Music lightens life; literature deepens it.
  • Just as music lightens life, literature deepens it.
  • Music lightens life. Literature deepens it.

The semicolon lends a certain balance to writing that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, you should avoid overuse—a comma can join parts of a sentence with two main ideas.

The semicolon is particularly appropriate if there is a striking contrast in the two ideas expressed.

  • Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
  • It started out as an ordinary day; it ended being the most extraordinary of her life.
  • Our power to apprehend truth is limited; to seek it, limitless.

If any one of the following words or phrases join compound sentences, a semicolon precedes it.

that isneverthelessanyhowin addition
in facton the other handlikewisestill
Meanwhileinsteadbesidesin other words
otherwisethereforeconsequentlyeven now
  • For a long time, people thought that women were inferior to men; even now it is not an easy attitude to overcome.
  • Listening to gossip does not tempt me; in fact, it infuriates me.
  • Some say Bach was the greatest composer of all time; yet he still managed to lead an ordinary life: he and his wife had twenty children.

When a series of complicated items is listed or if there is internal punctuation in a series, the semicolon is sometimes used to make the meaning clearer:

  • The scores from yesterday’s games came in late last night: Pirates-6, Penguin’s- 3; Cougars- 12, Caterpillars-8; Marauders-9, Merry Makers-8; and Guerrillas- 15, Star Gazers-4.
  • In October a bag of potatoes cost $.69; in December, $.99; in February, $1.09; and in April, $1.39. I wonder when this inflation will slow.

The semicolon is placed outside quotation marks or parentheses, unless it is a part of the material enclosed in those marks.

  • The weather was cold for that time of year (I was shivering wherever I went); nevertheless, we set out to hike to the top of that mountain.
Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist