When I was a tiny kid, riding in the car with my mother, she pointed to a huge billboard showing a smiling kid like me getting a pat on the head from a smiling policeman.
My mother read me the message under the picture: "My Friend the Cop!" It felt great to meet my first — and best — friend.
Who are some of a writer's best friends? I nominate comma, colon and semicolon. And add a dash of dash.
All of them can help you write with clarity and power.
Consider this sentence: Furious bondholders mounted lawsuits and cashiers fled in panic, but the bankrupt states refused to pay their debts.
A reader may conclude that furious bondholders mounted lawsuits and cashiers. "Ouch!" cried the cashiers.
There needs to be a comma after "lawsuits."
The first half of the sentence, ending in "lawsuits," can stand as a complete sentence; so can the second half. Place a comma between the two halves, and the meaning becomes clear.
Another example: "It simply implies that there are two moral opposites at work, independent of any interpretation of what might be 'moral' and independent of how morality may be represented."
Without a comma after the phrase "what might be moral," the sentence leads a reader to think it means "what might be moral and independent." In fact, the writer is talking about two kinds of independence; their meaning becomes clear when a comma separates them.
Notice, in the last sentence, the use of a semicolon — a very effective way to marry two closely related thoughts into a single sentence, rather than write two sentences of equal length. Varying the length of sentences creates rhythm and interest. If you go back to the beginning of this column and find some semicolons, you will get a feel for their use.
And the dash in the previous paragraph not only creates emphasis, it also lends the sentence rhythm.
Remember to read aloud what you have written, to test for rhythm, pace and clarity. Ask someone to read it aloud to you. It will pay off for you.
If you review the paragraphs above you will also find colons. Colons create economies: setting up lists, teeing up quotations, pointing to an example.
A few paragraphs back I used a colon after "Another example." That colon helps avoid extra and often clumsy words, as in, "Another example of this would be …"
I like using colons and semicolons; you may hate them. No argument here; use what you like, develop your own voice and tell your story.
Of course any of us can overuse stylistic devices. It's one thing to write something like, "We were paddling innocently near shore when suddenly we came face to face with a big black bear!"
If you start oversalting your writing with exclamation points, dashes, colons or semicolons, your readers may soon tire of you. But judicious use of any of these devices can turn readers into best new friends.
Gary Gilson, a Twin Cities writing coach and five-time Emmy Award winner in public television, has taught writing-intensive journalism courses at Colorado College for 22 years. Contact him through: www.writebetterwithgary.com.