March 21, 2013
I’m Afraid of ;;;;;;
It’s okay for writers to play with grammar. You don’t have to write in complete sentences. Not all the time. Readers know what you mean because that’s the way many people think.
Writers can put periods damn near anywhere. Well. Ma.ybe.
As the preceding example shows, you can’t get away with putting periods after every word, and certainly not in the middle of a word, but choppy sentences in a novel are fine. Really. They are. You can even mess up with commas, and em dashes, or misplace the punctuation inside of the parentheses. Readers will assume you are taking liberties as a writer, and they won’t worry about it.
Where you run into trouble is when you start messing with punctuation that most people don’t know about. Or they only know enough to be dangerous. What am I talking about?
The Dreaded Semicolon.
The semicolon is so feared that even editors are afraid of it. I recently had a writer tell me her editors steered her clear of the use of semicolons, going so far as to suggest that one per book might be too many. And Kurt Vonnegut was no friend of the semicolon. This is what Vonnegut had to say:
“…Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
I’m not sure about the “transvestite hermaphrodites,” but I’m pretty sure that was not a glowing endorsement.
So Why All This Talk About Semicolons?
I’m here to defend them. I’ve taken out my sword and drawn a line in the sand; I’ve had enough. Semicolons are magnificent little creatures that get no respect. Semicolons are like snakes; people fear them, so they kill them.
I’m of a different mind. I believe semicolons add a special flavor to a well-constructed sentence, a subtlety that a period cannot accomplish. A well-placed semicolon is precious—like a stolen kiss from secret lovers.
When You Should Use a ;
The most common use for a semicolon is to connect two closely related sentences. Think of semicolons like bridges. Imagine Manhattan if there were no bridges connecting it to New Jersey, or Brooklyn, or Queens, or the Bronx. That would make New York an entirely different place. Or suppose San Francisco had no bridge across the bay to Oakland. It wouldn’t be thought of as San Francisco/Oakland anymore. It would just be San Francisco. And Oakland.
That’s just one of the jobs a semicolon does; it connects two closely related clauses/sentences and brings them closer. Here are some examples:
- I can’t eat past midnight tonight; I have to fast for a blood test tomorrow.
- I’m not working in the garden today; I saw a copperhead there this morning.
- Bob drove 90 mph on his way to the hospital; his daughter’s life depended on it.
In each of the examples above, there is a very close relationship between the clauses, a relationship that couldn’t be served by a comma, and wouldn’t be served by a period.
Another common use for semicolons is to clarify and separate a list. In my book, Murder Takes Time, there are four main characters: Nicky Fusco, the hit man; Frankie Donovan, the cop; Angela Catrino, the love interest; and Tony Sannullo, the mob guy.
Let’s look at that sentence if we used only commas. In my book, Murder Takes Time, there are four main characters: Nicky Fusco, the hit man, Frankie Donovan, the cop, Angela Catrino, the love interest, and Tony Sannullo, the mob guy.
The second example, using all commas, is confusing. Using semicolons clarifies the meaning.
What You Don’t Do With Semicolons
- A semicolon should not be used in place of a colon. It’s not a good substitute, and, despite it’s name association, it doesn’t want to be a colon. Semicolons are perfectly content doing the job they were meant to do.
- A semicolon should not join two unrelated clauses.
Fear of Semicolons
I don’t know why people are afraid. Look! ;;;;;;; They’re not frightening; in fact, they’re kind of cute. And it’s very easy to recognize not only what a semicolon is, but what it’s function is. It is made up of a comma and a period. The period is on top, so your first inclination is to stop—as if it were a period—but then you see the comma and continue. It couldn’t be simpler. If you want to cast blame at the confusion surrounding semicolons, throw stones at the people who named it semicolon; it would have been better with a name like “periomma,” or “commeriod.”
The Bottom Line
Rise up, people! We’ve got to take a stand; the poor semicolon can’t survive without us. And let’s be honest—if we let the semicolon die, what will be next? The colon? The parentheses? Brackets? Pretty soon we’ll be left with commas, periods, and question marks. Some people might like that, but not me; I love my semicolons.
Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,
Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of MURDER TAKES TIME, MURDER HAS CONSEQUENCES, and A BULLET FOR CARLOS. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”
If you want to learn more about semicolons, go to a site like the wonderful one Grammar Girl maintains.