Wednesday, February 01, 2012

WNW: Use (and Abuse) of the Semicolon

FIRST OFF, some news . . .
Back by popular demand: Precision Editing Group is hosting their next Live Critique Workshop in a month! It'll be held at the American Fork Library on Saturday, March 3rd. Attendees are divided among tables, and they get to work with an instructor (staff are all both published writers and professional editors) assigned to each table. Bring along several pages of a work in progress to be workshopped. It's a great learning experience and a bargain to boot. But space IS limited. For full information and instructions for registering, visit the PEG Workshop blog.

Now to today's topic.

Of late, I've come across oodles of egregious semicolon abuse, and it's made me realize that

a) Not everyone in the world loves that little punctuation mark like I do and

b) Fewer know how to use it.

This post is my small attempt to help a bit in rectifying the numbers of both camps.

First off, let's debunk a common misconception.

Myth: Semicolons are totally outdated for fiction and, if used at all in today's writing, should be only in stuffy non-fiction work.

(Note how I remained totally neutral in describing the myth. Ahem.)

Truth: Semicolons are alive and well in all kinds of writing, including fiction.

Of course, as with any punctuation mark (or word, or literary technique), semicolons can be overused, but that doesn't mean you should avoid them altogether.

For me, semicolons are part of my writer toolbox. I like semicolons because they do two awesome things:
1) They allow an association or connection between thoughts that no other method can achieve.
2) They provide a pause length that's different than any other punctuation mark creates.

In other words, sometimes you just need a semicolon to get the feel across. This is where I bring out my orchestra conductor analogy.

Imagine punctuation as being the signals from a musical conductor (a writer). Each mark tells you, the reader, how to interpret the sentence: whether to slow down, speed up, add emphasis, trail off.

As a writer, if you get rid of the semicolon, and you've thrown away what could be the tool for creating the exact feel your sentence needs.


The Semicolon Rule of Thumb
While the best semicolon use is when you're connecting two thoughts, technically (from a grammatical standpoint) you can use one to connect any two complete sentences.
Ask yourself: Can the words on each side of the semicolon stand alone as a real sentence?
If the answer is YES, you can use the semicolon, such as here:
Kelly asked if I'd go ballroom dancing with her; I can't dance.
Note two things from the above example:
1) Both sides could stand alone as a sentence.
2) The second half has more meaning because of the first half.

It's the second part that messes people up. Because the second half gets emphasis, writers sometimes get it into their heads that any emphasis at the end of a sentence requires a semicolon. Not so.

If whatever comes after the semicolon isn't a complete sentence, don't use a semicolon.

Let's show that in action.

How NOT to Use a Semicolon
Here's an example of trying to give emphasis to the end of a sentence when the second part cannot stand alone as a sentence.
David bought Mary a bouquet of her favorite flowers; miniature peach-colored roses.
ARGH! (I shall refrain from pulling out my hair, but only just.)

The flower description (miniature peach-colored roses) is not a sentence. Ergo, you cannot use a semicolon before it.

But what if you really want to emphasize the kind of flower (or whatever else) at the end?

Easy. Pull out a different punctuation mark from your trusty tool box. Use an em dash.
David bought Mary a bouquet of her favorite flowersminiature peach-colored roses.
Here is where I'll add one punctuation difference that really is common between fiction and non-fiction. In the example above, you could use a colon instead of an em dash. Either is correct.

Just know that colons are relatively rare in fiction. You'll see them here and there, but the majority of the time, colons are saved for non-fiction, and in fiction, em dashes are used instead.

To learn more about em dashes and how to make them properly (because no, they are not hyphens smooshed together, and they aren't en dashes), see the last part of THIS POST I wrote for the Precision Editing Group blog some time ago.

7 comments:

Cheri Chesley said...

Thank you! Your knowledge is invaluable. I do use a semi colon occasionally, though not as often as an em dash. It's commas that always trip me up. I hate them.

Sue said...

All of these are tools I use frequently. In fact, I couldn't do without 'em!

=)

Kristina P. said...

I am afraid of the semicolon. I feel like I need a semicolonoscopy.

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

I love the semicolon, and I'm so excited to find out I'm using it the right way. :)

Charlotte said...

I distinctly remember telling a group of women that the semicolon was my favorite punctuation mark. It was then I learned most people don't have a favorite punctuation. I try not to overuse it, but it is so darn addicting!

Lara said...

I just want to know how you put an em dash in your blog post. I have been too lazy to find out how, and even though the parenthesis is obviously my favorite, I think the em dash is a close second. And I resort to using two hyphens in my blog posts.

I'm not sure I've ever used a semi-colon. I will have to try it sometime!

Melanie Jacobson said...

I <3 the semicolon and will never give it up.

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