Friday, July 13, 2012

The Dastardly Semicolon

Let me introduce you to the biggest troublemaker in fiction today: meet the semicolon.


Doesn't he look innocent? Like a little eye wink. But that little guy can stir up more drama than a hurricane on crack. I found that out the hard way. I was in the middle of what I thought was an overall healthy discussion about the usage of the semicolon in fiction when SLAP! My words got thrown back at me and someone left before they would say something to me that "they would regret." I had no idea the convo had gone that way and that I'd pissed the person off that much.

So, okay then. Let me pull out my list of topics not to talk about in public: religion, politics...the semicolon.


Maybe you're asking yourself what all the hub-bub is about regarding this seemingly innocuous punctuation mark. Well, grab your m&m's, an icy cold beverage (or a mug of hot cocoa if you're in the southern hemisphere) while I try to explain.

Two camps exist in the war over the semicolon

Camp One
Editors, authors, big six publishers, writing gurus, and writing workshop instructors from all corners of the earth take a hard line that the semicolon is considered a formal punctuation mark and should never, under any circumstance, be used in fiction. They say that since we don't talk in semicolons, we shouldn't use them in fiction and that their usage should be relegated to nonfiction and more formal styles of writing. They say that the semicolon can be removed and replaced with a hard stop (period) or a soft pause (comma and conjunction) and that just a modicum of work will render the affected copy to be the same or better without the semicolon being used.

Camp Two
Mostly authors who do not want to be restricted by rules of grammar and who want to have the freedom to convey the message of their work as effectively as possible for their readers. They say that since the semicolon is a valid punctuation mark they should not be told they can't use it. Most agree that overusage and improper usage of the semicolon are the greatest pitfalls by authors wishing to use it.

Both camps have valid arguments. One side says, be warned: the semicolon is too formal and you don't need it while the other side says, I can make it work and it will help my readers better understand the message.

Perhaps it would be helpful to know when a semicolon should be used.

According to my handy-dandy grammar guide, you would use a semicolon in only two instances:
1) You need to separate a series of elements and using a comma is insufficient.

To assemble the structure, you will need a hammer and a drill; size A, B, and D nails; quarter-inch, half-inch, and three-eighths-inch drill bits; and a level.

(I sure hope we're not including such lists like this in our fiction writing. If we are, we need to talk about the concept of showing vs. telling.)

2) To link elements, as an alternative to joining them with a conjunction or breaking them into two sentences.

(There are a lot of rules surrounding the various ways you can link elements in a sentence, and some require the semicolon while some don't. I won't go into all that here, but it's something you need to learn if you intend on using the semicolon in your writing)

His offer sounded too good to be true; I didn't believe it.
You could also write: His offer sounded too good to be true. I didn't believe it.
Another way you could write the sample is: His offer sounded too good to be true, so I didn't believe it.

All three of those sentences say the same thing, but it would depend on the surrounding context and tone of your manuscript which you choose.

My natural writing style includes a lot of "harder" stops between thoughts. My characters oftentimes don't use conjunctions, so I tend not to write their thoughts to include them. If I wrote every thought with semicolons, the usage would be over the top and distracting, and one of the main rules of punctuation is to be consistent. If I use a semicolon for those types of sentence structures once, I need to use a semicolon every time or I end up looking like I don't know what I'm doing. And that's a bad thing. I def don't want to look like I don't know how to write to a potential agent or publisher...and definitely not to an educated reader. So, I use the hard stop periods instead of semicolons...and no one's complained, yet.

For the record, I lean in the direction of not using semicolons, but I'm not as hard-lined on this opinion as I used to be. If an author wants to use them, use them, but just make sure you know how and when to use them, and don't overuse them. I don't like using them because my goal is to one day be published by a big publishing house, and they've made it pretty clear they don't like seeing them (at least not for new, unestablished authors like me. I'm sure the James Pattersons and J.R. Wards who've proven themselves by hitting the bestseller lists over and over again have a little leeway. Unfortunately, I'm not them and have to start at the bottom and do as I'm told until I've earned the right to do what I want).

The long and short is that it's really up to the author whether they want to use them or not, but if your goal is to make it to a big publishing house someday, I would recommend not using them. This will  make you a stronger writer, as well, because you will have to find other ways to convey your thought by leaving out the semicolon. Once you've reached Stephen King status and can command pretty much whatever you want, feel free to semicolon away, and if you have no aspirations to be published by a publishing house, use away.

And here we thought the comma was the punctuational bad guy. :)

Happy writing and happy reading.

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