Monthly Short Story Winner: Dragons
 

Monthly Short Story Winner

“The Fishwife’s Tale”

 
The Belgariad by David Eddings – Over Thirty?
 

The Belgariad - Over Thirty?

Article / Review

 
A Wizard of Mars by Diane Duane
 

A Wizard of Mars

Review

 

The Rulebreaker’s Guide to the Semicolon

When I started writing fiction again in November 2009, I just wrote. I didn’t care about what was okay, what was forbidden, and what was tolerable—I just purged my head of the story that had been stewing there for three years. It was raw and unpracticed and ugly, but there was something so authentic about the voice. I cringe at the craft of those early drafts, but even under all of the rough edges, I hear my own voice come through.

One of the tenets I follow as a writer—and one I tell budding writers all the time—is that you have to know the rules to break them. I’m a firm believer in rules of grammar, but only insofar as they allow readers to experience our stories without pain. Once the “rules” start to hamper the authorial or character voice, we’re allowed to break them judiciously. Grammar rules are reasonably consistent, though. What about the other rules—the ones other writers, agents, editors, and publishers espouse?

Read writing blogs for any length of time and you’ll hear various pieces of wisdom bandied about as “rules” for writing. Don’t use –ly adverbs (usually carelessly abbreviated to “don’t use adverbs”). Don’t start with a prologue. Don’t open stories or chapters with people waking up. Don’t end chapters with people falling asleep. Don’t have too many points of view. Don’t use the semicolon.

Wait. What was that last one?

I’m a semicolon addict—or at least, I was in those early drafts of Ravenmarked. I love me some semicolons. They’re such efficient little marks. They tell you to slow down, but don’t stop—this next idea is related. They clarify long series of nouns for you. They keep the action flowing when you have a bunch of short, choppy sentences.

Okay, I know Kurt Vonnegut says they only prove you went to college. I know Nathan Bransford says they have no place in fiction. I know James Scott Bell says to avoid them like you avoid eggplant.

But some people like eggplant.

Semicolons, like adverbs, prologues, and sleepy characters, are not the devil. When they’re used properly and sparingly, they can strengthen your prose and help you develop your own unique voice.

With semicolons, the best way to use them is according to the rules. I have yet to see a place where a semicolon is used incorrectly where it doesn’t distract me from the story or sentence. Semicolons become very clunky and visible when they aren’t used the right way.

So how do you use them properly?

To connect long series of nouns when you’ve already used a comma.
I don’t know that this usage will crop up much in fiction, but since it is a valid and appropriate use of the semicolon, it’s worth reviewing.

The princess ordered a dozen centerpieces of roses, ferns, and baby’s breath; organized, instructed, and approved the plans for the banquet and entertainment; and arranged for carriages and river boats to bring in guests.

Now, I do not recommend including a sentence like this in your fiction. While it might be intended to convey a feel of frantic preparation, it actually does the opposite: It bogs the reader down in really dense prose. To get that sense of frantic preparation across, you could instead break the sentence up something like this:

The princess ordered a dozen centerpieces of roses, ferns, and baby’s breath. She organized, instructed, and approved plans for the banquet and entertainment, and she arranged for carriages and river boats to bring in guests.

The second version is easier on your reader, but you may find a place where a construction similar to the first one works in context—for example, when it’s followed by short, choppy dialogue. If that’s the case, use it—just be aware that it can seem cumbersome and heavy.

To replace a comma plus a coordinating conjunction.
On occasion, you might have a sentence that contains two complete thoughts joined by a comma plus a coordinating conjunction.

His stomach churned, and he refused the offered mead.

Coordinating conjunctions are those little joining words. Remember “Conjunction Junction”? And, so, but—those are coordinating conjunctions. When you join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, you need the comma first. Or, you can connect those two clauses with a semicolon.

His stomach churned; he refused the offered mead.

It may be a matter of taste and voice, but I like the elegance of the semicolon there. If the semicolon works, don’t be afraid to use it.

To replace a period between two closely related thoughts.
When you want to make a strong connection between two thoughts, use a semicolon instead of a period.

The buffet included rich meats, cheeses, pastries, and every kind of cream sauce. The girl perused it all before selecting vegetables and fruits for her meal.

You could easily leave those sentences separate—there’s nothing wrong with them that way. But if you put them together with a semicolon, you add a layer of meaning and connection.

The buffet included rich meats, cheeses, pastries, and every kind of cream sauce; the girl perused it all before selecting vegetables and fruits for her meal.

Now we get a slightly different picture, I think. While we always suspected the girl was either watching her weight or had severe food allergies, now we see a bit more tug of war in her character. I think the semicolon adds a little bit of angst to the thoughts. It’s subtle, but that’s the beauty of the semicolon—it layers our prose with very subtle brushstrokes.

So go ahead—use semicolons. Be a “rule” breaker. Just remember—it’s a strong piece of punctuation that has the most impact when it’s used with great care.

For another very funny take on how to use semicolons, check out The Oatmeal’s cartoon on this maligned punctuation.

In two weeks: The Colon.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.2/10 (11 votes cast)
The Rulebreaker’s Guide to the Semicolon, 9.2 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
Share

14 Comments

  1. Paul Wiseall says:

    Another cracking article Amy! I loves me a semi-colon too and not just because the word makes me snigger; they make prose flow so much more naturally. Thanks for this great advice.

  2. Overlord says:

    Very interesting article. I tend to use them a fair amount, sometimes correctly and evidently sometimes incorrectly – hopefully I’m better equipped to tackle them in the future 😉

  3. This is a great article about the semi colon; it suffers the same fate today as the colon: as a victim of unwarranted persecution.

    On the more general subject of “writing rules”, I follow either of two rules: “If it works, do it; if it doesn’t work, don’t do it” or “Never follow a rule containing either ‘always’ or ‘never’. Including this one.”

  4. I’m so glad to meet another semicolon addict! Sometimes I have as many as five in one paragraph. I’m straining not to use one now. I also have an instant respect for anyone who uses them properly; it’s a lost art. Damn it. I lost the battle. Great article and thanks for stopping by mine. : )

    • Ashley, so funny that you say that about five in a paragraph… I was reading a very early draft of something of mine the other day, and I had a whole huge paragraph of description constructed with nothing but long clauses separated by semicolons and periods. It was crazy. LOL re: lost the battle. We’re sword sisters, I s’pose. 🙂

  5. You’re right about the rules. Those are the rules. But like killing someone, just because you CAN do it doesn’t mean you should. Semi-colons are bad, bad, bad, horrible things. They should be made to go away forever and ever and ever.

    • Philip, well, that’s true–just because you can doesn’t mean you should. But I do maintain there’s a time and place for using the semicolon, and it should be done rarely, carefully, and thoughtfully.

      But in all honesty, it largely comes down to author voice, I think. I asked my husband, a voracious reader but not a writer or editor, if he ever notices semicolons, and he just laughed at me. I don’t think readers notice them at all if they aren’t flooded with them. It’s a little bit of an internal debate, perhaps… 🙂

  6. Alex Hurst says:

    Loved this article; can’t wait for the next one!

    (In unrelated news: why is it that the blog post is posted in October, but the comments are all from September? O.o)

  7. Bob says:

    Check out the Anthony Ryan method for handling semicolons: just write with tons of semicolons, then right before you publish simply replace the semicolons with commas without changing anything else!

  8. Thank you so much. I hate reading work with sloppy grammar, but seem to be blind to my own glaring mistakes. This really helps!

Leave a Comment