On Semicolons

About seven hundred years ago when I was a graduate student, a professor red-inked one of my papers so much I thought she’d opened an aorta over it. “You use too many semicolons,” was the comment. “Ninety percent of semicolon sentences can just as easily be written as two sentences. B-”

She’d circled every semicolon and I was mortified to note that I’d put at least one, sometimes two per paragraph. Clearly, the rebuke was along the lines of: “watch it on the pretension, kiddo.”

I took the rebuke to heart, and I started paying attention to my semicolon addiction. To my ear, linking two independent clauses by a semicolon made the words flow more elegantly. Maybe my profuse use was a mark of my immaturity as a writer. Maybe I just wanted whatever I was saying to be taken more seriously and throwing some semicolons at the reader was a way of saying “see how sophisticated this is? Bet your other students aren’t using this nearly as well as I am.”

I was a dork. I own that.

So I cut semicolons out. If I had two independent clauses, I’d split them in two with a period. Or I’d use a conjunction like and with a comma. They dropped out of my arsenal. [ For a cheat-sheet on the use of semicolons, the University of Madison – Wisconsin has the best, imo].

Recently, though, I started using them again. I realized that sometimes you have to use a semicolon because it allows two independent clauses to be in a closer relationship than two separate sentences do.

Here’s an example from Alan Lightman’s Ghost.

He should have been more unpredictable; he was like one of her boring jobs. He never knew what she wanted.

If instead Lightman had written:

He should have been more unpredictable. He was like one of her boring jobs. He never knew what she wanted.

he would have presented the reader three short sentences so similar, the musicality of the passage would have been lost. Also, by using a semicolon to connect two clauses that describe the protagonist, he links two disparate ideas (unpredictable and boring) into one.

I’m going to start using more semicolons again. But judiciously. Just like adverbs, adjectives and a host of other stuff we writers are supposed to stay away from, a little is okay and gives you another tool to shape your prose.

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About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She writes under a variety of pseudonyms, including Ani Bolton. She has written two novels as Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins, and Tamara Blake, for the novel Slumber.

Comments

  1. says

    Good post, and thanks for the link to the semicolon cheat sheet.

    Up until quite recently I didn’t know people considered the frequent use of semicolons pretentious or stylistically incorrect. I wonder if this is as much to do with current fashion in writing styles as anything. One of my most admired writers, Dorothy Dunnett, wrote many long, complex sentences featuring the semicolon. So did Dickens. Perhaps readers require snappier writing these days. Short sentences. Short paras. Short attention spans!

    I use semicolons a lot. I believe semicolons, colons and full stops (periods) have two functions – one is purely grammatical, as per the style guide, and the other is to provide pauses in the flow of the narrative. These pauses exist whether or not the piece is being read aloud. A semicolon pause is longer than a comma pause and shorter than a period / full stop pause.

    Of course, the construction still needs to be grammatically correct.

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  2. says

    I think genre has to do with usage as well, Juliet. I rarely see semicolons in thrillers or breezy YA’s (I freely admit I’m not looking that hard). Authors who have a more lyrical voice seem to use semicolons more prolifically. I know I am.

    Richard, we’re interviewing Noah Lukeman — Therese loves his book — so check back soon.

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  3. says

    I second Richard’s comment about Noah Lukeman’s fabulous A Dash of Style. I love that Lukeman’s tips are geared toward fiction writers.

    Thanks for the post, Kath! From one semicolon junkie to another… ;-)

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  4. says

    Personally, I like the semicolon — when used judiciously. I recently reread A Prayer for Owen Meany and was surprised at how often John Irving uses the semicolon in it. You’re right, it is an elegant grammatical mark; tying ideas together without resorting to the outright disconnect of a period feels more proper at times. But when it seems to appear every second or third sentence, as in Irving’s otherwise wonderful story, it can actually become a distraction.

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  5. says

    I love semicolons and colons. I’ve only started to use them. I, too, learned they were against the rules.

    But there really is no replacing them. They link two thoughts. We need them. Have you read John Irving?

    PS: I do cut out half of them in an edit. And I only allow myself the indulgence once every page, max. Probably still too much, but…

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  6. says

    In the book I cite, Lightman’s GHOST, he only had two –yep TWO semicolons in the whole thing. So I knew he used them only when he really needed them.

    It’s like cayenne pepper…a little goes a long way.

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