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.


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.