Writing Tip Tuesday: Semi-Colons

April 6, 2010 · 9 comments

I have a question for your blog. If this has been answered before, then just ignore it. If not:

How do you feel about the use of semi-colons in fiction, and how and when do you think they should be used?

Personally, I love semi-colons. They are so cute! (I could have sworn I’d talked about them before but couldn’t find it using the Search feature…)

I hate reading about semi-colons (and other grammatical stuff) because it’s so darn boring! And confusing. (Unless you’re a word nerd.) So I’ll try to make this easy.

The most general and widely applicable rule for semi-colons is: Use a semi-colon when you need a pause that’s stronger than a comma, but not as strong as a period.

The second rule for semi-colons is: Don’t use so many that they distract the reader with their cuteness.

There are a few other rules, too. Use a semi-colon when:

  1. Connecting two independent clauses (phrases that could be stand alone sentences) into one long sentence, without using a conjunction. (This is the most common usage, and IMHO, the only way it should be used in fiction.)
    Example: I looked into the vampire’s cold, black eyes; I was doomed.
  2. Connecting two independent clauses into one long sentence, while using a conjunction. This is only done when one or both of the independent clauses is really long or uses a lot of commas. (Most of the time, IMHO, it’s better to go ahead and make it two sentences.)

    Example: The vampire loved the flavor of types A-positive, B-positive, and O-positive blood; but AB-negative always gave him a stomach ache.

  3. When a sentence contains a long and wordy list. (Use this only in non-fiction, scholarly works. It’s just too cumbersome in fiction.) (It’s also telling, not showing.)

    Example: The vampire had lived under many identities during his six hundred plus years—a farmer in the 1600s, a lesser prince in the 1700s, a ship’s captain in the 1800s, a merchant marine in the early 1900s; most recently, he was posing as a dot com millionaire and that suited him just fine.

There are a few other times when using a semi-colon is acceptable, but they’re awkward and I don’t recommend using them that way in fiction. If you really want to know ALL the details of the semi-colon, do some research; look it up on Google.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 9 comments }

Rebecca Irvine April 6, 2010 at 8:36 am

Now I am wishing I had AB negative blood; that seems ideal.

brenda April 6, 2010 at 10:00 am

Thanks for clearing that up so simply. (I thought your example sentences were sooo funny)!

Annette Lyon April 6, 2010 at 10:26 am

Great explanation!

Note that LDSP said to use a semicolon with INDEPENDENT CLAUSES.

The most common misuse I see with them in my freelance editing work is when someone wants a pause that's longer than a comma so they throw in a semicolon–but the two sides aren't independent clauses.

WRONG!

(Your friendly neighborhood word nerd. Yes, I use semicolons in my fiction. They're cute.)

mormonhermitmom April 7, 2010 at 11:12 am

Well, it's a good thing you posted this because I thought semicolons were for sentences with an incomplete phrase in it. Phew.

I hate it when blood makes me sick to my stomach. 😉

Elizabeth Morgan April 7, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Sounds like something i would have a hard time following the rules with. Grammer is not my thing.

Chris April 7, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Thanks for the clarification! I too have been unsure how to use them properly. Next time Word subs a comma for a semi-colon, I'll accept the change.

Joyce DiPastena April 8, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Thank you for posting this! I've often wondered myself about this very question.

onelowerlight April 20, 2010 at 8:43 am

Not to be contrary, but in college writing courses, I was taught that it is incorrect to use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). Instead, I was taught to use a comma with those, and a semicolon with basically anything else (however, moreover, etc). So, for example, if a student came to the writing lab where I used to work with your second example sentence, I would have struck out the semicolon and put in a comma instead. Is this correct, or do you have access to some fount of wisdom that transcends my academic training (I learned this in a poli sci class, btw, not an English class)?

LDS_Publisher April 20, 2010 at 8:56 am

You make a good point and yes, it's better to use a comma with the conjunction most of the time. Using the semi-colon with a coordinating conjunction is not my preferred method (see note on making it two sentences).

My example is technically correct due to the number of commas before the semi-colon. The semi-colon provides a more obvious break between the two parts of the sentence. It is used this way to provide clarity and avoid confusion.

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