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My World of Squiggles

Andrew John – All Rights Reserved


When friends ask me what I’ve been doing all day I’ll often say that I’ve been agonizing over squiggles. That’s how it feels, believe me.

Apart from the way words hang together to produce meaning in a sentence—the syntax—an ocean of meaning can be conveyed by the use, or absence, of a squiggle. Yes, I’m talking here about punctuation.

Many writers are slapdash about punctuation. They probably feel it’s just furniture, something that makes their prose look pretty. More likely, they don’t know that much about how to make punctuation work for them, but they do their best. Unfortunately, their best is often not good enough.

OK, much of the time, the absence of a comma doesn’t alter the meaning. It just makes discerning readers say "tut, tut" or cast their eyes to the sky. I would argue that this reaction in itself is not a good thing for you the writer, because those readers just may not feel that they can trust the rest of your article, chapter, or book, and may continue reading (if they bother) with a degree of suspicion and some annoyance.

But the big reason why getting to grips with the squiggles is a Good Thing is that you’ll rule out ambiguity at a stroke (or the absence of one!).


Let me give you an obvious example. It highlights one particular abuse of punctuation very well, and, once you think about it, you realize it’s very obvious, and won’t repeat the error. But it is a construction that is so often abused.

Some time ago, I saw the following in an article (the words aren’t the same, but the construction—the way they’re used—is): "The rewards should go to the workers who are the backbone of this country’s economy."

Now, to whom should these rewards go? Just the workers who are the backbone of the economy? Or is the writer saying that workers in general—i.e. all workers—are the backbone of the economy? If it is a trade unionist writing, you might assume the latter. He has the workers’ interests at heart, and will praise them whenever he can. If it is, say, an economist or politician, she may mean that the rewards should go only to the workers who form the backbone of the economy (all other workers being a bunch of wasters who deserve no reward).

And how do we distinguish between those two meanings with a simple piece of punctuation? I guess you’re ahead of me: it just needs a comma before who.

The absence of that comma means that what follows who is what is known as a restrictive clause: it restricts our definition to that of a particular type of worker, i.e. the type that is the backbone of the economy. The implication is that there are workers who aren’t. The presence of a comma, however, makes it into what is known as a nonrestrictive clause, telling us that all that follows who is a little extra information that isn’t absolutely necessary to the meaning the sentence seeks to convey. It’s called nonrestrictive because its definition isn’t restricted to certain workers. (I’ll be dealing with restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, and the choice of that or which as the pronoun preceding them, in my next article, "Which ‘Which’ is ‘Which’?".)

With nonpersonal pronouns (that and which), you would do just the same, preferably using that with no comma before it to introduce a restrictive clause and which preceded by a comma to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.

Oh, well, we can tell from the context what the writer means, you might say. Sure, we often can. However, what if we can’t? What if we’ve discerned earlier in the article that the writer is a bit lax on this? So far we’ve managed to tell from context what is meant. Then we reach a sentence that really needs that comma before who in order to be unambiguous. Oh, dear! We can’t trust this writer, because we’ve seen some errors earlier in the article. How can we trust this sentence? We’re left not knowing what it means—does it mean all workers or just those who are the backbone of the economy?

What we’ve discussed above isn’t the only concern careful writers should have for the comma. But it’s a prime example of how misuse can alter a meaning—or at best leave a statement ambiguous and give your reader pause.

Commas also separate words in lists (for instance, "Punctuation marks include commas, dashes, colons, semicolons, and brackets"). Commas split a complex sentence into its distinguishable clauses, and this is such a sentence. Commas can also perform the role of weaker parentheses, like this, and as such they are known as bracketing commas.

Colons and semicolons

Colons and semicolons are a niggle for many people. It is the semicolon that is the more misused in my experience. I see sentences such as, "They didn’t get to the meeting; they both developed headaches." Often, the writer is trying to say that the reason they didn’t get to the meeting was that they had headaches. However, what it is literally saying by the use of that semicolon is that these two events have no causal link. They didn’t get to the meeting, and, by the way, they were additionally irritated by the fact that they both suffered headaches. You might say they’re two parallel statements.

So, assuming the writer really wanted to say that their headaches were the reason for their not attending the meeting, how do we correct this? We use a colon. Different meanings are conveyed, depending on whether you use a colon or semicolon. We should think of a colon as something that introduces something else. These people didn’t get to the meeting? Why didn’t they get there? Was it because they felt pretty lousy with thick heads? Yes. OK, so the one follows from the other, and there’s a causal link. "They didn’t get to the meeting: they both developed headaches." The result, and the cause of the result.

If, on the other hand, you have two parallel statements (and let us stay with the example of the meeting and the headaches), you use the semicolon, as that sentence did. The two events—failure to get to the meeting and the onset of cranial pains—are linked only in that they occurred to the same people. But there’s no causal link, and you could have stated the one without the other. The semicolon merely tells you that they are parallel statements—two statements of equal importance, but not causing or being caused by each other.

More often than not in these days of shorter sentences, you can substitute a period for the semicolon and simply begin what would have been the next clause with a capital letter: "They didn’t get to the meeting. They both developed headaches. To top it all their cell phones gave out." Separate thoughts. Separate sentences. Equally, you could use semicolons instead of the first two periods in the example just given. It’s up to you. The longer the clauses, the more likely I am to use periods and begin new sentences. It makes reading that much easier.

Let’s say, though, that two clauses are so inextricably linked (but not causally so) that you need to keep them in the same sentence for the sake of effect: "He had pride in his company; he had pride in himself." You could use and instead of the semicolon, but there’s a certain drama achieved by stating them in this way, and you can, if reading the words aloud, have an effective pause there.

Colons, in addition to the use I illustrated above, are also used to introduce a list. "There are three things I want to say: one is this, one is that, and one is the other." It’s the same with a "list" of just one item when you say, "After years of struggle their country achieved what it set out to achieve: independence." Think of introducing the next part of the sentence with what comes before the colon, or ushering it in if you like.

Let’s return to semicolons. These little critters are also handy, apart from the example of the two parallel statements above, in lists that are a little more complicated than single words or very short phrases. They may, for example, have lists within the list, with the inner items separated by commas. You can help your reader’s understanding with the practical use of the semicolon. Here’s an example: "He saw several dozen vehicles: cars and trucks that had been through the checkpoint; trucks and vans, along with some SUVs, that hadn’t been through the checkpoint; vans, cars and motorbikes that were queuing at the checkpoint; buses that were painted in bright colors whose owners had no intention of going through the checkpoint …"

In that example, you saw the colon, semicolon, and commas working in harmony in the one sentence.

A dash of meaning

Finally in this article about squiggles, let’s look at the dash (—) and the hyphen (-)—first, their length. A more popular dash these days, especially among British writers, is the shorter one—the en dash. It’s used with space at each end – like this. Americans tend to use the longer dash—the em dash. This is closed up to the letters before and after it.

With that out of the way, let’s look at the difference between a dash and a hyphen. They are not the same. A hyphen joins two elements of a word (re-education) to avoid having two vowels sitting together while being pronounced two different ways). It also links two or more words so that they collectively form an adjective (or an adjectival phrase, to be more precise): "He was a trigger-happy cowboy"; "In the day-to-day running of things …"; "Risk-averse people don’t take gambles"; "Back-office staff are very important."

Dashes have several uses. You can use one to introduce a sort of coda at the end of a sentence, a little flourish that adds another, often small, piece of information that isn’t always absolutely necessary: "That day, he collected three golds, one silver, and two bronzes—and received a mountain of fan mail." The more important information in this sentence is what this athlete has won.

Sometimes a dash is used instead of a colon in the way we saw above with the example of the country’s independence. With a dash, it would read, "After years of struggle their country achieved what it set out to achieve—independence." A colon is a little more formal in this type of sentence, and you shouldn’t use a dash in every place you could use a colon; but it’s all right in less formal writing.

One of the handiest uses of dashes is instead of parentheses. Parentheses are the round brackets (such as the ones holding these eight words) you see for inserting a little extra information that may not be absolutely necessary—and indeed may be somewhat removed from your core subject—but that you wish to add, anyway. And you’ve just seen an example in the last sentence.

A word of warning: if you use dashes in this way—let’s called them bracketing dashes—you ought to restrict their use to two in any one sentence. Because they’re bracketing information in the way parentheses might, you could—if there are four or six or eight of them in there—have your reader wondering which is the bracketed information and which belongs in the sentence’s core narrative. With parentheses there’s no ambiguity, because of their shape; with dashes you might run into problems.

So why use them at all? Why not just use commas? After all, there are such things as bracketing commas, too, such as the ones that hold the word too in this sentence. But a combination of commas and dashes gives your sentence a visual structure, and makes the chunks of information it contains easier to hold together and be apprehended by the reader’s eye.

Before we leave dashes, let’s look briefly at the use of the en dash (the shorter one) as a linking device, suggesting relationship or range. Whether you’re using the British-favored en or the American-favored em for all other purposes, you’ll use only the en for this—and it will be closed up to the letters before and after. You see it in such phrases as "the LAX–New York flight was late," "the French–German alliance," "the Bush–Blair relationship," and "the Black–Scholes model" (that’s one you’ll find in finance literature, and indicates that the model was not devised by Mr. Larry Black-Scholes, but by two gentlemen—economists, I believe—called Mr. Black and Mr. Scholes).

So don’t be tempted, as are so many newspapers (books are more careful), to use a hyphen instead of a dash. That’s sloppy.

Being square—or not

Finally, since we mentioned parentheses above, let me get this niggle off my chest. Some people scatter square brackets all over their prose when they are simply not appropriate, and that can be very confusing. While they do have certain technical uses in linguistics, dictionary listings, and the like, in ordinary prose use them only when you’re in the middle of a quotation but wish to add something of your own—an interpolation: Mrs. Simpson said, "You know, Homer, I can’t do anything with that boy [Bart] when he’s in this mood." Mrs. Simpson didn’t need to use the name Bart, because Homer knew whom she was talking about. But, because the sentence might have been used out of context, we the readers did not know (although fans of The Simpsons could quite easily guess!), and that one-word bit of information helped. Because Marge Simpson didn’t actually say it (and the same goes for all inserted—or interpolated—pieces of information), you tell your reader this by using square brackets.

On the day I wrote this article, I read fragments of a politician’s speech in a newspaper, and began to notice parentheses—sometimes called round brackets—that were clearly not necessary and introduced words that just didn’t seem to belong in the sentence, words that spoiled the flow. I realized they contained interpolated information, and the writer reporting this speech should have used square brackets. It makes a difference, because, if the writer uses only parentheses, how are you the reader going to know which words were interpolated by the reporter/writer and which were the original words of the speaker? This was in a quality newspaper, too, which was doing its readers a disservice through the reporter/writer’s ignorance.

We’ve covered just a few examples—but important examples—of how those squiggles can make you say what you want to say, without making your reader have to work too hard to understand you.


You’ll find more grammar tips in the book I’ve produced with Stephen Blake (http://www.youcanwritebooks.com/). It’s about how easy it is to get published and break through the brick wall of rejection—and it does have some writing and research tips, too. You’ll find it useful. We’re both published authors (our fourteen or so print titles are listed on the website), and are professional freelance editors, so we know what we’re talking about, and for just a few dollars you could be on the way to being a published author before you know it.



         Last updated: February 19, 2007