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I've often heard writers say they don't like using colons and semi-colons in dialogue specifically. I don't often see colons and semi-colons in dialogue, but sometimes it just seems like it's by far the best option.

For example:

"I told you: John doesn't work on Mondays."

Is there any real alternative to the colon here? How about a semi-colon?

"Don't worry; I only get drunk on Sundays."

Is the semi-colon ok, or is it awkward in dialogue? Putting a full stop after "Don't worry" seems strange to me.

Or I could expand the sentence:

"I’ll do anything it takes: rehab, counseling, therapy, whatever I need to do.”

What's the difference between using a colon or an em-dash?

"It's an article about all the types of things you hate: the environment, animal rights, veganism, that kind of thing."

Is the colon above okay in dialogue?

How about something like:

"Trust me; the WASPy stuff is nothing in comparison."

Is a semi-colon appropriate above? Once again, it seems strange to me to put a full-stop.

Or:

"Those things I said--I didn't mean a word of them."

Is an em dash appropriate here? I thought you weren't supposed to put a full clause after an em dash if it finishes the sentence? If so, should I use something else like a colon?

How about:

"I know you; that place would haunt you."

Is there another way of doing this?

Thanks so much for any advice! Please note the question is specifically about dialogue.

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    I'd like to suggest that people answering this question focus on using colons and semi-colons in dialog and not limit themselves to these specific examples, which are only here to illustrate a point. I think it'll make it more useful. "Feed a man a fish," etc. – Neil Fein Oct 13 '15 at 4:58
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    An excellent question, MoniqueH! Welcome to Writers! – Thomas Myron Oct 13 '15 at 5:44
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    It is indeed a great question. A related one, which I encounter sometimes as a journalist, is when to use this sort of punctuation in a transcription. In reality, my feeling is that people's actual speech patterns don't tend to suggest use of colons and semi-colons. They're more suited to theatrical diction. – Matt Thrower Oct 13 '15 at 8:26
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Is using colons and/or semicolons in dialogue awkward? No. Using them is fine. To me at least, every one of the above quotes looks perfectly natural. I agree that trying to find another way to write them would be difficult, and in some cases, may even harm the flow of writing by using something unnatural.

It all comes down to what works best for what you are writing. Even very successful authors will sometimes bypass the rules of grammar (or widely accepted rules of writing) briefly, just because it makes their story more powerful. (I regret I cannot give you any examples off the top of my head. If you read closely, you should find them.)

Grammar is a great tool for keeping your writing in a format that is easily understood by all. When you're writing though, be sure to put the words on the page before the correct way to put them there. I love grammar, but sometimes making sure you have perfect punctuation will make your words lack just that: Perfection.

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    Thank you so much Tommy! I keep seeing well-known authors using comma splices in dialogue instead of colons and semi-colons. At university, it was drilled into us to avoid comma splices like the plague, so that's why I feel like sometimes using colons is unavoidable even in dialogue, even though I don't seem to see it that much. It's good to have someone else's input! Thank you! – MoniqueH Oct 13 '15 at 5:50
  • You're very welcome; I'm glad I could help! I would agree that comma splices sound terrible anywhere, especially in dialogue (though that is just my opinion). – Thomas Myron Oct 13 '15 at 21:01
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I use colons and semi-colons in dialogue. I have editors at some houses who take them out (house style), usually to replace them with em-dashes. I don't think it really makes much difference so I don't fight to keep the original punctuation, but if I were self-publishing, I'd leave them in.

I think the argument against them is based on the idea that people don't "speak" colons or semi-colons, but I think we do - punctuation is meant to represent the way we use our voices as well as to follow grammatical rules. So I'll continue to use all available punctuation, in dialogue or otherwise.

But if I weren't going to use colons or semi-colons, I'd probably use em-dashes instead.

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Colons are fine because they represent a stop, the same as an m-dash. I would hesitate to use a semi-colon in dialogue because to me it's a bookish piece of punctuation. It gives the reader a visual guide that two indepdendent clauses are connected. (I would never, however, use a comma splice instead.)

  • Thanks very much Lauren. It's true that I definitely see a lot more colons than semi-colons in dialogue. I think you have a point! – MoniqueH Oct 18 '15 at 5:43
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The difference is that em-dashes are parenthetic and a semicolon indicates a continuous thought.

In your first three examples I would have used a comma.

In the things-you-hate sentence, the colon is OK because it is a list.

Trust me, should be a comma.

"Those things I said" must be a comma. You can't have an incomplete sentence set off by an em dash like that. Remember, the em dash is essentially an appositive, so the rest of the sentence has to be able to stand alone.

"I know you. That place would haunt you." should be a period because they are separate thoughts, not a continuation of thought.

The Chicago Manual of Style (get that book) describes the semicolon this way: "In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would."

She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean; no mere water-resistant watch would do.

Here the semicolon is correct because the second sentence follows from the first. In other words, you could also write it this way:

She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean, so no mere water-resistant watch would do.

A better example:

We could crack the safe or pick the safe; you need to decide.

Here, a conjunction would be awkward, so the semicolon is definitely indicated. Even though each clause is an independent sentence, they cannot be separated by a period, because they are part of the same thought.

  • Thanks so much Dean. Really interesting answers. Do you find semi-colons distracting in dialogue? They seem to be avoided in all the recent fiction I am reading, even if they would work best for the sentence. – MoniqueH Oct 18 '15 at 5:42
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I think colons are used for expanding on a particular word before it while semi colons add additional info relating the sentence before it. Example 1 : I bought some vegetables: carrots and spinach. Example 2 : I bought some vegetables; I am planning to be a vegetarian.

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