Em dashes vs. semicolons in student writing

Voxitatis started last year and is continuing through this school year to reprint well-written articles by students across America, especially if they cover important topics. This means I review hundreds of student-produced headlines a week and review paragraphs of student writing on a daily basis.

Earlier this month, our computer robots came across an article written by Annika Lafyatis at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, about a summer immersion camp she participated in with the Girls Who Code organization. I contacted the faculty adviser for the Conant Crier, telling him I wanted to use the story in this well-received series. Within a day, he contacted Annika and gave their permission for me to reprint the story.

After I had their permission, I sent it to a copy editor Voxitatis employs for stories we didn’t write, and he marked up a few changes. For minor changes, I usually just go with the copy editor’s recommendation, but I am generally inclined to write “stet” on many of them, which means the change won’t be made and the copy will stay in its original form.

Annika’s original article had this paragraph:

I applied after taking my first-ever computer science class junior year. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the application had nothing to do with grades or test scores. It didn’t even have to do with my knowledge of coding; girls with no experience were encouraged to apply. All I had to do was write a short response to one prompt.

Note the part of the penultimate sentence I have highlighted in red. Although I didn’t even think twice about this paragraph on first reading, I got a note back from our copy editor suggesting I change the semicolon to an em dash if I wanted to.

\textrm{Q: }\frac{1}{M}\textrm{ ?}

The proofreader’s mark sent me taking a closer look at the paragraph for the context and at the sentence for the gritty details. Both parts are complete sentences, so several punctuation marks would be grammatically correct: a period, a semicolon, an em dash, or even a colon.

The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that if the part that is set off emphasizes or elaborates on what it comes after, an em dash can be used, although all of the examples cited in the 14th edition of that style guide show emphasis clauses, not sentences. Annika’s elaboration was a complete sentence on its own.

5.108: A defining or enumerating complementary element that is added to or inserted in a sentence may be set off by dashes. Such an element may also, however, be set off by commas (see 5.49); enclosed in parentheses (see 5.123); or—at the end of a sentence—introduced by a colon (see 5.97–101).

Whenever there’s a query (Q:) from the copy editor, I am inclined, as executive editor, to let the student’s writing stand. But for some reason, I decided to change this one to an em dash for publication. I probably thought at the time that semicolons usually separate two closely related ideas that present opposing viewpoints, such as in cases where the second idea is introduced with a word like “however.”

It has been on my mind ever since, because there are many instances where semicolons are just fine and I obsess over these things. For non-editors in the world, though, it’s just not that big a deal. Whether I change it to an em dash or leave a semicolon, the meaning and context are still the same for readers.

Writing is simply a way to record speech, the natural form of communication, and people don’t speak punctuation. Here, either a semicolon or an em dash would provide the same level of pause and connection between the two ideas, so either would have been appropriate.

But it gave me a chance to explore in more depth the use of dashes (and semicolons), and for that, I’m once again happy to have started this series in the hopes of promoting student journalism and good writing and reporting in American schools.

About the Author

Paul Katula

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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