The Great Semi-Colon Debate

by James Scott Bell

And you didn’t think there was one, did you?
Well, there is. At least I’m declaring it so, here and now.
When it comes to fiction, I think of semi-colons the way I think of eggplant: avoid at all costs. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons ,,, All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
The semi-colon is a burp, a hiccup. It’s a drunk staggering out of the saloon at 2 a.m., grabbing your lapels on the way and asking you to listen to one more story.
Not that I have an opinion, you understand.
Okay, I’ll modify things a bit. For non-fiction, like essays and scholarly writing, the semi-colon does serve a purpose; I’ve used them myself. In such writings you’re often stringing two thoughts together for a larger point, and the semi-colon allows you to clue the reader in on this move.
But in fiction, you want each sentence to stand on its own, boldly. The semi-colon is an invitation to pause, to think twice, to look around in different directions, to wonder where the heck you’re standing. Do you want that? Or do you want your story to move?
The semi-colon is a stone that causes the reader to stumble.
Not that they’ll notice this on a conscious level. Most won’t think, “Why’d he use a semi-colon here? I’m being taken out of the story!” No, but it will have that very effect, on a subconscious level. It will weaken the reading experience in a small way. Not fatally, but why would you want even a small speed bump in your story?
The semi-colon is especially grating in dialogue:
“We must run to the fire,” Mary said. “It is going to burn the town; that is a disaster!”
What’s that semi-colon doing there? Is it making Mary’s dialogue stronger or weaker? Is it adding to the intensity of the moment or diluting it?
Semi-colons. For academics, yes. For novelists, no.
I’ll leave you with this clip from a poem entitled “On Punctuation” by Elizabeth Austen. You may then offer your own opinion on the great semi-colon debate!
 . . .as for the semi-
colon call it what it is

a period slumming
with the commas

a poser at the bar

feigning liberation with one hand

tightening the leash with the other
 . . .
“On Punctuation” by Elizabeth Austen, from The Girl Who Goes Alone. © Floating Bridge Press, 2010

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54 thoughts on “The Great Semi-Colon Debate

  1. Yes. Thank you for this. I once had a CP who corrected my sentences by adding semi-colons everywhere. After a few deep breaths and I loud scream, I deleted the critique. I hate seeing a semi-colon in a book.

  2. I used to just love that semi-colon; I thought it was classy. I’ve had more than one person tell me just to use a comma. Alas, it has disappeared from all my writing, but I may resurrect it now and then for fun.

    I found this article I thought you all could have fun with while exploring this topic. Note the comment in this article about a certain serial killer. Sounds like Kill Zone kind of stuff.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/18/nyregion/18semicolon.html

  3. Donna, that sounds like a horror novel. Someone walks into her own house and finds it taken over by pests.

    Philip, when one writes on bennies and types on a long roll of teletype paper, one does not have time for periods or commas.

  4. Today semi-colons, tomorrow the dash.

    I know grammar is important, but I wonder how many strict grammarians write enthralling fiction? I’m sure most authors know more about the rules of grammar than I do, but I never have discussions with the general public or other authors on semi-colons or dashes. I suspect editors have these sorts of discussions regularly. If I had depended on my mastery of punctuation to sell my manuscripts to editors, I’d still be unpublished. Thank God it’s the stories they buy. Some authors have little need for editors, but I am not one of them.

  5. Semicolons should almost never be used in fiction. But I can’t condone a blanket condemnation of semicolons or any other of the writer’s tools. Some people use semicolons in their speech. In the dialogue or internal monologue of such characters, semicolons can be used to good effect if handled deftly.

  6. Indeed, Miller. Grammar was never my strong point. But an old newspaper editor once wrote, “The period is the greatest writing tool known to man. Use it.” That’s one I’ve kept in mind.

  7. Andrea, thanks for weighing in. I’ve never found a semi-colon in my thoughts. But some people have accused me of being half-witted, so maybe there’s a connection.

  8. Oh Jim, Jim, Jim. I’m heaving big sighs here. I usually bow to my writing superiors, but in this post, I have to stand straight. 🙂
    Of course a period at the end of a sentence is wonderful. It’s that strong, assertive mark that says, “I wrote what I meant, and I mean it.”
    But a semi-colon (correctly used, of course) can be compared to flooring. Yes, that stuff we all walk on. Noah Lukeman in A DASH OF STYLE uses this comparison. Gray cement floors are as functional as you can get. But when we want elegance and style, something that elevates our senses to the luxurious, we go for something else: marble, polished hardwood, plush carpet, or even some color added to the cement. Semi-colons are one tool in the writer’s toolbox, and personally, I need all the tools I can get. As Lukeman says, “Business memos do not need semi-colons; creative writers do.”
    Fun post!

  9. with a lot of the general public declaring, ‘i seen’ or ‘him and me’re goin’ to the mall’….i’m not sure you’ll get a lot of fan mail in regards to your grammar.

  10. Laura, far be it from me to interrupt a love affair!

    Rebbie, I can see your point (and Lukeman’s). But I guess I just don’t see any elegance in the semi. I seek emotion in fiction, not calling out to the reader about stylishness, which the semi does when I see it.

    But then again, I’ve never been accused of elegance, except when I was shooting fifteen foot jumpers in high school.

    I’m glad to hear the discussion.

  11. Just before I submitted my manuscript to agents, I had it reviewed by a pair of well known mystery writers who are sisters. They told me that I overused em dashes. I was the Queen of Dashes. I did a global search and replace and reduced them by about 75%. My manuscript was much better for it.

  12. Douglas, I’m with you, right down to the “Ughh.”

    Kathryn––you who love the em dash–overuse of anything is a distraction–don’t you think?–and can be solved–often elegantly–with the delete button–yes?

  13. I wholeheartedly agree. Colon, too, and parenthesis, brackets, any of that stuff. Em dashes are okay, but I agree with above — use sparingly or you dilute their “boldness.”

    A few comma slices are okay, but don’t overdo it. Stick to the period in most cases, for fiction.

    As to what does not belong in fiction, I’ll add ‘and’ before ‘then’ as a rule. When it feels right, fine, however, not necessary. ‘Then’ is perfectly legal grammar in the role of conjunction when done correctly. The term is “enumerative adverbial conjunct.” To the sticklers I say, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

  14. Sorry, I realize I’m not a high-powered writer or anything, but I do like semi-colons (though not in dialogue) and em dashes, and you’ll get them away from me when you pry them from my cold, dead word processor … (oh, yes. ellipses, too.)

    I would like to pass along a couple of expositions on the subject:

    From my tweep Tony Noland:
    Ode to the Semicolon

    My own foray into the subject:
    Attack of the Semicolons

  15. I can’t stand semi-colons, either. There’s a copyeditor at Penguin/NAL who sticks them all over my MONK books and I end up spending countless hours removing every damn one of them.

    Lee

  16. I’ve found that semi-colons, even when properly used, do tend to confuse most people and stump them when reading. I try to avoid them. I will use them in a first draft, mostly as a reminder to go back and rethink my sentence, usually breaking it in to two smaller, better sentences.

  17. What Laura said.

    I like the semicolon. It has its place in fiction as well as other forms of writing, and to exclude it is to diminish the richness and subtlety of our language.

  18. When used properly, the semi-colon is a good thing. I would rather see people use a period when a semi-colon would be better than to see them use a semi-colon where a period would be better, but let’s not just throw it out. Instead, let’s learn to use it properly.

  19. Well I had NO idea writers were so passionate about semi-colons! I’m not a fan simply because, like Douglas, I don’t know how to use them.

    However… I love my ellipses and em dashes! Probably to the point of addiction.

    Great post! Loved “On Punctuation”.

  20. Yep, I’m firmly in the no semi-colons camp. Love em dashes and use them liberally. On the fence about parentheses.

    Let me guess: the next great debate will be plot vs. character? Nick Harrison? Whatever it is, can’t wait!

  21. Someone tell Scott Lynch? He uses them so much for a while I thought he’d broken his comma key.

  22. James, you just haven’t had eggplant cooked correctly. Maybe if semi-colons and eggplant were utilized by skilled hands you wouldn’t hate them so much. I offer eggplant caponata on seared cod as a temptation to change your mind…trust me!

  23. Heh. Before I read “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves,” I never used semi-colons because I didn’t know how, even though betas accused me of run-on sentences a lot.

    I tend to write in first person or very close third, and I have a couple characters who think and speak in sentences appropriate for semi-colons. I do try to use them only when necessary.

    Em-dashes though–I admit it. I’m an addict.

    (By KD Sarge, anonymously, because while Gmail is satisfied as to who I am, Blogger refuses to concede.)

  24. I agree with lack of semicolons joining clauses and ideas, but what about semicolons in lists where the list items contain commas?

    Just a thought. I am guessing the better solution is to rewrite the sentence.

  25. The odd semi-colon is okay. I think it’s just the length of the sentences that bothers me as well as excessive descriptions.

    I happen to like eggplant! Personally, you should have used a ; after voicing your hatred of eggplants. 😉

  26. That is a new type of the debate which is done over here. It would be very much interested for doing the debate on this type pf the topics. As The semi-colon is a stone that causes the reader to stumble.

  27. I didn’t know I was supposed to have an opinion about semi-colons. I am strangely neutral on the subject. I do. However. Love periods. I tend to use them a bit too liberally. I’ve been known to do what may be called a period splice.

  28. Yanno, I think there’s a time and place for the semicolon. I tend to use it at my leisure — but holy cripes, not in _dialogue_!

  29. Someone send this post to Microsoft and tell them to stop correcting sentences with semi colons.
    On a more serious note, you Americans think ‘gotten’ is a word. On that basis, anything else you say about writing is highly suspect.

  30. I totally agree that semi colons serve no purpose! My editor put in several of them when she edited my first book. Being a new author, I bowed to her experience but it felt weird when I read it.
    Next time, I’ll be more vocal! Thank you for the post!!

  31. “We must run to the fire,” Mary said. “It is going to burn the town; that is a disaster!”

    The semicolon is the least of this line’s problems. It’s stilted because of the lack of contractions and there’s some apparent tense disagreement. “That *would* *be* a disaster” would make way more sense.

    The phrase “guilt by association” seems apt here. Can you show me an example of an otherwise great sentence that suffers from a correctly-used semicolon? Because I’m unconvinced.

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