#amwriting: demystifying the semicolon

Semicolons are misunderstood and misused bits of punctuation. Some people believe they are extra-long pauses, halfway between a comma and a (full stop) period. With that in mind, they litter their work with instances of typographical madness.

Semicolons are NOT extra-firm pauses. When writing genre fantasy, em dashes (or hyphens if you are British) serve that function. Semicolons have a different place in the universe. So now we’re going to examine the semicolon and discover what it is that they actually do.

The proper use of a semicolon is to join two short sentences that are directly related to each other, turning them into a compound sentence.

No one enjoys reading a choppy narrative because too many short sentences can be distracting and hard to get into. The way we smooth the narrative is to join short sentences into longer, compound sentences. But frequently, that creates run-on sentences. (I am the queen of those.)

SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two complete, stand alone sentences where the conjunction has been left out. These sentences MUST be directly related to each other.

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; if it rains. (The semicolon is not needed because “if it rains” is not a stand alone sentence. This sentence should be written: Call me tomorrow, if it rains.)

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; the car is running in the driveway. (Each clause can stand alone but they have no relation at all to each other. They are separate thoughts completely.)

Correct: Call me tomorrow; we’ll make the arrangements then. (The conjunction and has been replaced by the semicolon.)

The key to understanding semicolons is to understand what a stand alone sentence is. A stand alone sentence consists of a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought:

Vera walked carefully across the rough ground.

Dogs and their owners came from all over to play in that park.

If you have sentences that express complete thoughts but make the narrative choppy, you can connect them with a conjunction: Rain had fallen. The yard was flooded. We were trapped.

Rain had fallen, and the yard was flooded, so we were trapped.

Alternatively, we could rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy:

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard. We were trapped.

If you don’t want to use a conjunction and you absolutely must use a semicolon, or you will burst into flames, you have the legal right to do so.

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard; we were trapped.

Authors who truly believe in themselves and their work will go out of their way to learn the proper use of punctuation. Once we know the mechanics of the English language, we will use it in ways that define our vision for our work.

When we learn how punctuation functions in making our sentences flow for the reader, we begin to develop our sense of style. We begin to craft our work with intention.

As a result, our work ceases to be uneven, with occasional flashes of brilliance. It becomes engrossing, something our readers can get lost in.

However, there are some considerations for each author to ponder when it comes to the use of the infamous semicolon. For general fiction or literary fiction, semicolons are no big deal. Used properly, readers and reviewers won’t even notice them.

If you are writing in genres such as paranormal fantasy or hard science fiction, I suggest you use conjunctions or rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy, rather than resorting to using semicolons. Some reviewers in those genres seem to despise semicolons, saying they are “archaic.” These reviewers will criticize work sprinkled with semicolons as being “too literary” (whatever that means).

Maybe they are archaic, but I doubt it. When I first began writing, I used to employ semicolons far too frequently and improperly. I had the good fortune of having an editor who was patient and happy to explain how they actually function. I bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and that book is what I refer back to when I have questions about how punctuation works.

While I rarely use them myself nowadays, the semicolon is a legitimate punctuation mark, and when used correctly, it has a specific task. I suspect the many haters of this little morsel of madness are simply confused by the proper use of it, and therefore they consider it unnecessary.

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8 Comments

Filed under writing

8 responses to “#amwriting: demystifying the semicolon

  1. Great stuff! I am only just getting to grips with these. When I first started writing I put them all over the place, but, like you, I am using them less frequently now. Thank you for this post.

    Like

  2. Thanks for the refresher in using semicolons. Now I get to go back through my manuscript one more time looking for the proper use of semicolons. Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the refresher course.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stephen Swartz

    I still remember when it used to be a full colon. Sad.

    Liked by 1 person

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