Learn English – When and why did the em-dash and the hyphen supplant the semicolon


It seems to me that semicolons are rarely used today in ordinary English writing – even in newspapers and books. They appear to have been replaced, in many cases, by em-dashes and hyphens (the hyphen being used on the Internet and/or in informal communications). In some cases, semicolons have been replaced by periods (i.e. something which might have previously been one sentence would now be written as more than one sentence). Over what period of time did this change take place, and why?

Best Answer

The short answer, I think, is that the em-dash makes it easier to read the sentence and thus more likely that the reader will understand your point and want to continue reading.

Readers today are inundated with far more to read than ever before, and any structure that forces the reader to do more work will be detrimental to their likelihood of reading further.

Grammatically, semicolons are used to connect two independent clauses without the use of a linking preposition. However, the type of connection is not stated outright; the reader is supposed to assume a reason for not separating the clauses into sentences. (In the last sentence, the implied connection between clauses could be expressed by the word therefore.)

When a writer uses an em-dash rather than a semicolon, there is white space around the connection. White space, particularly for visual learners, signals that there is some work to be done by the reader to understand the connection between two things. It also allows metaphorical space for that to happen, since it forces the reader to pause and make the connection.

A semicolon doesn't offer that same amount of white space. It is a subtle cue, and can slow the reader down if they don't see the period above the comma. (Anything that makes a reader pause and say "huh" will increase the likelihood that they will not continue to read.)