The Much Abused Semi-Colon by Annette Lyon

July 17, 2012 · 4 comments

in Guest Posts, Writing Basics

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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 are 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.)

Annette Lyon  is a Whitney Award winner, the recipient of Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction, and the author of eight novels, a cookbook, and a grammar guide, plus over a hundred magazine articles. She’s a senior editor at Precision Editing Group and a cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English. When she’s not writing, editing, knitting, or eating chocolate, she can be found mothering and avoiding the spots on the kitchen floor. Find her online at blog.annettelyon.com and on Twitter: @AnnetteLyon.

Need a little extra grammar help? Get Annette’s grammar book, There, Their, They’re: A No-Tears Guide to Grammar from the Word Nerd.

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{ 4 comments }

Rebecca July 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I admit to loving semi-colons; I prefer them to the em dash :-).

Gina July 17, 2012 at 5:19 pm

I am a semi-colon addict, too!

Erin July 17, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Thank you thank you for the clarification. I’ve been kind of scared to use them, but have more confidence now!

Marny July 17, 2012 at 9:20 pm

I love using semicolons; I use them all the time (and parentheses, too)!

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