WNW: The Much-Abused Semicolon

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Rampant semicolon abuse is so frequent that I just have to post about it in hopes that maybe one person will stop the mistreatment of the poor mark and give it some respect. Or at least keep it from being so regularly misused.

Let's start by getting two things clear:
1) A semicolon is NOT a fancy way to show a pause.
2) A semicolon is NOT a colon and therefore is NOT used the same way.

In other words, the following examples are WRONG.

The fancy pause semicolon: Trixie climbed to the top of the high dive; terrified.

The semicolon-as-colon:
At home, Jane began her second arduous job; keeping house and caring for her children's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Please don't do those. Pretty, pretty please?

A semicolon is used correctly when the text on both sides of it can stand alone as complete sentences.

THIS version would be correct:
Trixie climbed to the top of the high dive; she was terrified.

See? Separate the sides:

Trixie climbed to the top of the high dive.
(Complete sentence? Yep.)

She was terrified.
(Yep. That can stand alone too.)

(The fact that you could find a way to show her terror instead of telling it is another post.)

Colons introduce a list or significant information. Usually, that information isn't a full sentence (although there are exceptions).

Fixing the semicolon-as-colon is way easy. Just replace the semicolon with the colon that should have been there to begin with.

At home, Jane began her second arduous job: keeping house and caring for her children's physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

Here's another issue to clarify: semicolons are not the punctuation equivalent of the dodo bird. They are used in contemporary writing, even fiction. Regularly.

Yes, even in fiction.

(Okay, I admit to overusing them at times, to the point of arguing with my editor over keeping some. So I'm a semicolon addict.)

I've heard people claim that semicolons belong only in non-fiction, that em dashes should be used instead, at least in fiction.

I disagree. Vehemently. (Me have a strong opinion? Shocker, I know.)

Here's the thing: semicolons serve specific purposes, and no other punctuation mark can do exactly the same thing. Sure, sometimes an em dash can work, but an em dash gives a slightly different feel and longer pause length than a semicolon.

Now, I don't advocate throwing in semicolons with abandon, even when used correctly. Too many call attention to themselves, and anything that draws a reader out should be avoided.

But there's some great lines that deserve a semicolon, like when you want a close connection between two sentences. A period can't do it. Using a comma + conjunction is correct
(Trixie climbed the high dive, and she was terrified), but again, that adds a different feel.

(A perfectly fine feel, if it's what you're going for, but not a semicolon feel.)

Sometimes the semicolon is the only way to get the rhythm, the pacing, and the tone you want.

This may sound odd to non-word nerds, but a writer who has a great grasp on punctuation is like a conductor leading a symphony. The writer leads the reader along with clear signs for pausing at the right places, speeding up here, slowing down there, emphasizing this part.

Learn to use the semicolon; you'll thank me.

(Couldn't resist throwing one in.)

Comments

wendy said…
Were you an English major?? How do you know all this stuff.
I am sure writing books like you do requires a lot of knowledge on this sort of thing.

I am sure I abuse alot of the "rules" of the english language and writing protocol

but now I will try and remember to think when I use the semicolon if I am using it correctly.

I always learn alot from you...thanks
Lara said…
Yeah, the semicolon always gets me. I don't use it wrong, because I don't use it. But I'm never sure when, so I resort to something else.

Now I know. :)
Kim Coates said…
So when it comes to making lists; I shouldn't use the semicolon I just did; is that what you are saying?

:)
L.T. Elliot said…
Just when I think I can't love you anymore, I do. I love the semi-colon. Thank you for helping me remember how NOT to abuse it.
Jordan said…
Hooray! I heart semi-colons. Annette, you may be the only person who would understand how excited I was when I took a "Which punctuation mark are you?" and got a semi-colon.

And I totally agree that em dashes are not and should not be interchangeable with semi-colons.
Jordan said…
(Oh, how embarrassing. I don't normally hyphenate semicolon, either. Ah well.)
I like semicolons. Surprise, surprise.
LisAway said…
Great post, as always. The semicolon is one of the few punctuation marks that I feel fairly confident I use correctly (along with the period, exclamation point and question mark. Although punctuation within and around parenthesis? I'm pretty sure I do that very, very wrong.)

I especially love your last point. I'm not a real writer but I hate hate hate that I can't use punctuation to make my words read the way I mean for them to. For example, I use the word "though" all the time (probably too often). I am never sure where to put the comma, though I feel there should be one, especially when the word falls in the middle of a sentence.

If we lived closer I would seriously ask you to lunch and bombard you with punctuation questions. :)
Awesome post, Annette! I do love me a good semicolon. Use them in fiction all the time. :-)
Kim Coates said…
After reading this post, I started working on my draft again. I've always feared them, but you just gave me the courage to insert a semicolon of my own. I only pray I used it correctly:

He hoped the car behind him would stop in time; James had refused to purchase rental insurance.

So, did I learn something new, or am I too oblivious to get it?
Sue said…
I'm pretty fond of the semicolon. Sometimes, nothing else will do.

=)
DeNae said…
I have a very healthy relationship with semicolons; we never hurt or abuse one another.
InkMom said…
Would that all marks of punctuation had an advocate as vocal (and correct) as you.

It makes me happy that there are other people in this world just like me -- absolutely obsessed with proper usage.
T.J. said…
I need to say something. I abhor the em dash. I think it's become overused as much as the word "plethora" is used to be fancy. Em dashes bug me and everywhere I look, there they are! Ugh!
(No, I'm not overly opinionated.)
Kristina P. said…
The semicolon and I aren't really friends. It scares me. And I don't even know what an em dash is.
Anonymous said…
Semicolons may also be used in lists where a comma would result in confusion, such as: Minneapolis, Minnesota; New Haven, Connecticut; and Albany, New York.
Jennie said…
Great post, Annette, and Anonymous also made a valid point. Your mini lessons are always great.
Annette Lyon said…
You're absolutely right, anon.

Lists are another correct use when the individual pieces in the series have commas already.

I opted not to mention it this time for a mini crash course since that's a relatively rare occurrence. Maybe I'll do a post on just that sometime.
Josh Hoyt said…
Great information on the semicolon. I am an under user of the semicolon I think I have two in my entire novel (:
Just SO said…
I probably use the semi colon in the most abusive way that there is. To make a winking smiley face ;)
Erin said…
I love the semicolon. Using it correctly makes me feel smart.
Kimberly said…
I adore the semi-colon. Well said!
Arlee Bird said…
This is very helpful. I'll have to pay a little closer attention to this; I think I might misuse semi-colons frequently.

Lee
Tossing It Out
Terresa said…
Oh, oh, oh!

I'm laughing at the coincidence of this, I just came across this quote last night about semicolons:

"How hideous is the semicolon."
— Samuel Beckett


hehehehe.

:) Couldn't resist sharing it with you.
See Mom Smile said…
I don't use semicolons because I don't know how. But I am a fan of the dot, dot, dot... Which I am sure I use incorrectly. But I don't seem to care...
The semicolon is my friend. I love this kind of grammatical banter. I know my writing usage is often incorrect, but it's intentional. I want it to sound just like it would if I spoke it, and sometimes that takes a little bit of punctuation manipulation.

(I was sent this way by Jessica G., but I've dropped in on you many times before and always enjoy what you do.)

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