FacebookTwitterPinterestInstagramTumblrGoogleYouTube
 
 
RSS Feed Print
Is a semi-colon the anti-Christ?
Charl F king
Posted: Wednesday, December 7, 2011 12:13 PM
Joined: 11/20/2011
Posts: 24


I have an author friend who thinks the semi-colon is evil personified and has almost--note almost, no place in creative writing. It is neither fish nor fowl, comma or period, but it can be quite useful. I asked this question on another writers' forum and started a small war. LOL
Joe Bridges
Posted: Thursday, December 22, 2011 12:38 PM
Joined: 12/18/2011
Posts: 25


I don't want to start any wars, but it does look like we can use some more discussion here on Book Country, so I'll jump into this one. It's a very worthy topic, and I'm surprised more people haven't already commented since you opened the thread!

Remarkably enough, I just changed about 80% of the semicolons in The Great Alliance to periods, and about 10% more of them to commas. The remaining semicolons have found favor at least in my sight(lol), so I'm saving them forever. I guess when I first started writing TGA, I thought semicolons and run-on sentences were a mark of higher intellect, or maybe I'm "dumber" than I used to be, since I've been out of school longer. Whatever the case may be, I'm inclined to agree with you that semicolons definitely have their place. I've read what the dictionaries have to say about it (but I'm getting old now, so I don't remember any of it until I read it again). I've studied the matter on my own to try to use punctuation correctly. Usage changes from age to age as the language itself evolves, but (call me old fashioned or whatever) I still like some semicolons. I'm surprised I haven't used one yet in this comment!
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, December 26, 2011 1:57 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Okay, I'm sucked in.

As I understand it, from the way my grammar professor put it, the semi-colon is a soft period. It can be used when a period or a comma will not suffice. I do not think them to be the anit-christ, but I do think they look ugly, and do not use them myself. The warning that I have is that they should not be overused. Since most people do not understand how they work (I'm going to assume that you do) I would be careful using them to often or you might confuse the reader. Semi-colons are a confusing lot.
Joe Bridges
Posted: Monday, December 26, 2011 3:51 PM
Joined: 12/18/2011
Posts: 25


Hi LeeAnna!

You could have put one between those last two sentences and made one sentence out of them, but on the other hand, your comment doesn't seem to lose any meaning as it is. Semicolons are more necessary than mosquitoes in the Grand Scheme of Things, I think, but they can be just as annoying, especially if improperly used where commas should be. Since it was Charl that opened this thread, I'm guessing that maybe she (like me) sometimes finds herself creating runon sentences and using too many semicolons. I don't know how many times I've proofread some of my writing, only to find that I had a sentence one whole paragraph long, divided only by semicolons. That was what prompted me to change so many semicolons in my WIP novel last week. Thank God and Microsoft for Word's Spelling and Grammar Check feature.


Angela Martello
Posted: Wednesday, December 28, 2011 9:44 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394


There is definitely a place in creative writing for semicolons, colons, and em dashes. Of course, as with commas and periods and other grammar tools, writers need to use them correctly. That said, however, I think sentence structure in creative writing - [pretend that's an em dash] at least in contemporary creative writing - [ditto with the em dash] tends to run a bit on the less complex side; not requiring semicolons. I see semicolons all the time in my "day job" as a medical editor.

I don't think any punctuation is evil. What I do find is evil is the trend in modern communication (particularly texting and tweeting) to eliminate punctuation (and abandon spelling). But, I am a fossil.


M Romero Nunn
Posted: Monday, January 2, 2012 2:56 PM
Joined: 12/13/2011
Posts: 15


Oh dear,
This does seem to be taking the same lines as the marmite(vegimite) argument (strange, gooey, beef flavoured substance to which you add hot water for a 'cuppa soup' experience. It's sold in the UK and Australia and people either love or hate it).
Unlike Marmite, I really love the much maligned semi-colon. It's like a musical note of silence in my head. I use it when the pause of a coma is too short and the pause of a fullstop (oops! period to you guys) is too long and final.  And like really a good broth I prefer to pepper my stories delicately with it. 


Charl F king
Posted: Monday, January 2, 2012 5:17 PM
Joined: 11/20/2011
Posts: 24


I have a small personal war going with semi-colons LOL I eradicate them wherever possible. If I do use one it really, really has to deserve being there A professor of English once told me I could also use it in place of "and" That was years ago and I went crazy, putting the damn things in everywhere. Then I saw the light, thanks to a doctor of lit this time, and proceeded to take them all out. I am hard pushed to use one these days.
It seems all of us are more or less in accord, except M. Romero. If it's like a musical note in your head tthen I would urge you to soldier on in defense of the poor little semi-colon I think as one grows and changes we learn some stuff, then unlearn, then learn it again. I guess so long as we write from the soul that is all that matters.
We also get Marmite in South Africa. Haven't seen Vegimite here, only in England.
Angela Martello
Posted: Monday, January 2, 2012 8:02 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394


To M. Romero: I love this sentence: "It is like a musical note of silence in my head."

I am currently having a friendly "battle" with one of my freelance copy editors who has a tendency to strip commas - even absolutely necessary ones - from every sentence he edits. I tell people, when I don't want to get into grammar rules, to read the sentence out loud and to pay attention to its rhythm. If, while reading, they pause or take a breath, they might want to think about inserting a comma (or a semicolon, if other conditions warrant it).

Vegimite! Haven't heard that word since that hit song from the 80s (the title completely escapes me at the moment).


Charl F king
Posted: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 12:17 AM
Joined: 11/20/2011
Posts: 24


I see you ave a first name M. Romero. Hi Maria
I agree Angela, some people gp overboard. I also encourage people to read the sentence out loud.


Carl E Reed
Posted: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 12:04 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608


Here's my take. The semi-colon exists for a reason: to inject a brief pause between two linked sentences, a pause the writer intends to be briefer in duration than that created by the use of a  "full-stop!" period. Knowing when and how and why and where to use it is an art, as is all punctuation wielded as part of the writer's arsenal.

FYI: John Irving disagreed vehemently with Vonnegut over the "good 'ole semicolon" (Irving's term); Vonnegut harrumphing that semicolons were simply "hermaphroditic transvestites" cluttering up the page.     
M Romero Nunn
Posted: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 2:20 PM
Joined: 12/13/2011
Posts: 15


To Angela,
Thanks for quoting me back (Ha! fun experience) and the song was Men At Work, 'Down Under' from which the verse says: "She just smiled and gave me a Vegimite sandwich." Are you hearing it in your head now? Ha!

Thanks Carl for that lovely anecdote on my friend the Semi. Hermaphroditic Transvestites...oh, I'm still cackling about that. Result! Irving's on my side.  I suppose, in keeping with the similar growth sentiments by Charl  - hiya back - if writing styles are subject to fashion, perhaps some punctuation (or, as Angela's freelance editor would have us believe, most punctuation  is subject to the whim of current(dis)tastes. (note to Ange: Your comma-picking editor scares me)
....Blimey, Charl; marmite in S.A?  I'm gobsmacked about that one. (ooh, I just had to sneak in a semi! Maybe they'll come back into your good books one day)


Angela Martello
Posted: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 8:03 PM
Joined: 8/21/2011
Posts: 394


I love this web site. . .


Laura Dwyer
Posted: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 4:15 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


As a student of journalism, I must admit that I never used the semi-colon in my previous news writing. That being said, I do like me some semi-colon sparingly in my fiction writing. I agree that it's tough for most to master. (And I do lump myself in with the other "mosts.") I used to edit content on an online fiction writing website which will remain nameless, and was appalled at the general lack of punctuation, grammar AND spelling knowledge. Unfortunately, semi-colons were a lost art there. 
The way I have always understood it, the semi-colon is best used when tying together two separate sentences on the same thought, when a comma would cause a run-on and a period would be too abrupt. But it's a very fine line between correct use and a run-on. And I loathe run-ons. 
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 10:57 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


I do say that I might be convinced to spice up  my writing with the odd semi-colon. I will just have to make sure its done right, of course.

By the way, I do love the conversations on this site.
M Romero Nunn
Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 1:44 PM
Joined: 12/13/2011
Posts: 15


Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!

Are you hearing this Charl? The tide's turning for the semi. How happy am I right now?   I'll certainly be looking forward to seeing semi's in wiriters' WIPs. Thanks Charl for bringing the subject to the fore!



Melissa Bebout
Posted: Sunday, January 29, 2012 11:44 AM
Joined: 6/21/2011
Posts: 5


Count me in the semi-colon camp!

As others have previously noted, they must be done correctly. Too often I see semi-colons thrown about because writers simply don't know when or how to use punctuation (any punctuation), and conversely, neither do the readers. Since I understand them, when they're done well I don't even notice them, unless they're over-used.

That being said, I tend toward em dashes in fiction and using semi-colons in nonfiction. It's a matter of personal preference, and to me, em dashes are more informal, while semi-colons are more formal and suited to when I want to sound more intellectual. Or, at least, that's what I tell myself

And although I have made some flippant remarks about keeping editors in business, etc., if you want to be a writer, you ought to take the time to learn how to use your craft (i.e. grammar and punctuation). If I read the first few pages of your work and find you can't seem to consturct a proper sentence, it doesn't matter how interesting the plot is-- I don't want to read it.


Laura Dwyer
Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012 3:43 PM
Joined: 1/10/2012
Posts: 192


Amen, Melissa! There's nothing that turns me off more, both as a reader and editor by habit, than someone who can't even grasp the fundamentals of the written word (and the English language). I've read stuff  - and I use that term here because I don't think the word I'd rather use is appropriate - and couldn't get through the first paragraph because it read like a first grader wrote it. Really, people??! It truly horrifies me to think what kids ARE NOT learning in school these days, that they cannot construct a proper sentence. Phew. Okay. I got a bit wound up there. 
Thank you all, again, for providing an avenue for my, um... rage.
Tony Colina
Posted: Friday, February 3, 2012 12:00 PM
Ha ha, nicely put, this one
to me, not only is a semi-colon the antichrist, but a colon, too! no reason why, but I very rarely use'm both.
you may like to check my (hopefully not very bizarre) idea of punctuation by reading the first five chapters of my novel 'Of Rust and Rain', which you'll find posted in the slipstream/intestices section of this site.


Carl E Reed
Posted: Monday, February 6, 2012 11:22 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608


Re: Alberto: "All great authors carefully avoid semi-colons . . ."

Heh-heh! Surely you jest, Alberto! You sound like John Irving's college writing professor, who once gravely told him the very same thing.

Now wait just a dog-gone minute!

To clarify something I dashed off earlier, the semi-colon exists:

1.)    to connect two independent clauses not linked by a coordinating conjunction.

2.)    to separate long or complicated items in a series that already includes commas.

3.)    to separate two long or complex independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction if confusion would result from using a comma.

The usage I was defending earlier (#1 above) seems to be the most problematic for fiction writers but I don't know why; I truly don't. There are times when a "full-stop!" period and shorter, punchier sentences are desired and other times when a more lapidary, compound-sentence rhythm is required or desired.

Throwing out the semi-colon entirely or obsessively scrubbing it from your prose seems to me as short-sighted and silly (not to mention brutish and philistinish) as deciding that a 5-gear sports car should really only be driven in the first four gears, or that one should eliminate butter knives from the table because a steak knife can double as a handy-dandy butter-cutter in a pinch, or—hey!—while we’re at it why not eliminate the four-dot ellipsis entirely in favor of the three-dot ellipsis?

I prefer more tools in the writer's arsenal, not less.


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, February 6, 2012 11:51 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Carl to the rescue!

I have to agree with him, Alberto. One should never count anything out. I only leave out semi-colons because I'm not sure I'm using them right, but after some clarification I've regained my confidence.

Oh yes, and Carl, the four dot ellipsis has a rule as well. I'm sure you already know it, but since we're on the grammar subject, I'll talk about it here anyway. It is to be used when citing only parts of a longer quote at the end of a sentence. Here, I'll make up some nonsensical example:

"See Spot run. See Peter chase Spot. See Spot bite Peter for grabbing his tail." (my brain, pg. 00)

Now if I were quoting only part of it:

"See Spot run.... See Spot biter Peter for grabbing his tail." (my brain, pg. 00)

That is what I know of it, but feel free to prove me wrong if it has other usages.
Rommel Luna H
Posted: Monday, February 6, 2012 8:50 PM
Joined: 1/20/2012
Posts: 12


If a semi-colon is the anti-Christ, then I'm a Devil worshipper!
I love those little demons; the way they look and smell. I would eat them for breakfast if I could!
Just kidding... but I really do like them.
And, LeeAnna, shouldn't the four dot ellipsis be encased in brackets when used the way you did in your example? I'm not sure about that, and too lazy right now to google it.
Cheers!


LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 11:27 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Rommel: That was the way I learned it from a professor who wrote the book on grammar and citation for our university. I've never heard that it had to be put in brackets.
Atthys Gage
Posted: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 3:32 PM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467


For me, the bottom line comes down to clarity.  I think the distinction is pretty clear when it comes to a list of phrases that already include commas.  All commas look the same and if the reader has to sort it out for himself, then you have been unclear.  The same principle applies to independent clauses linked by a semi-colon only in that case, the writer has the options of using em dashes or periods.  So it comes down to aesthetics more than strict grammar.   Personally, I like semi-colons just fine, and I've used them.   I'm sure some agents and editors abhor them, and I don't need any more barriers there than I already have, so if asked, I would remove them and feel no great loss.  (Some things are worth going to the mat over.  Semi-colons probably don't make the list.)  At this point. I'd love to be in that situation. 
Rommel Luna H
Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012 1:52 PM
Joined: 1/20/2012
Posts: 12


What do you guys think looks/read better:
"Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
or
"Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
or
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
I rest my case.

Cheers!


Danielle Poiesz
Posted: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 9:26 AM
haha I love all this semi-colon talk!!

I myself love the semi-colon, but in fiction, it's best to use sparingly. And always should be used correctly! It's one of my biggest pet peeves when I edit. Seeing semi-colons used incorrectly makes me cringe!

But at the same time, the thing about fiction is that some rules of grammar can be bent...if they serve a purpose. Consider how many incomplete sentences there are in genre fiction novels! Sometimes, it's just the right thing to do for the story and characters.But as I said, it has to have a purpose and all of this rule-breaking should be done sparingly. The same goes for ellipses, em-dashes, commas. Bend them when you need to but don't do it too much. It can be distracting for the reader and will almost certainly cause a loss of impact.

P.S. @LeeAnna and @Rommel -- In fiction, there are no brackets necessary around an ellipsis that is ending a sentence.... Like so. =)




RJBlain
Posted: Thursday, February 16, 2012 5:46 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 224


I love the semi-colon; it serves a function that the period sometimes doesn't, and takes the space of a comma when a comma doesn't make as much sense.

I tend to use a semi-colon as a soft period. The sentence following immediately after needs to be very concise and directly tied to the one before it. However, it allows the breathing space of a period.

My pet peeve in fiction writing is the ellipse. I avoid it whenever possible, because I have seen it abused way too often!

What really trips my trigger is when it is used in dialogue, several instances in one sentence. It is like... My... Name... Is... William... Shatner.

And yes, I tend to imagine the character talking just like William Shatner, male or female. And, I often quit on a book that does this pretty much immediately. ::shudder::
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Friday, February 17, 2012 2:07 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662


Thanks for clearing that up, Danielle. I knew I was right. It doesn't happen very often, but there you go.

I'm with RJBlain. I have a tendency to only use ellipses when writing academic papers; or more, when I used to write academic papers.
Bill Wetterman
Posted: Thursday, May 3, 2012 6:09 PM
Joined: 11/20/2011
Posts: 4


No, but it is unnecessary. Use a period--period. lol
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Friday, June 15, 2012 4:05 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


Punctuation exists to help readers understand meaning.  In fiction, "meaning" includes revealing character and advancing the plot.  Readers adapt to nonstandard use of punctuation (nonstandard by whatever set of rules you're using)  as long as you're consistent so they can understand what is meant.  No punctuation mark is off-limits for fiction writers.   A writer may choose not to use one, but that choice isn't binding on anyone else.

A semi-colon in narrative may advance the plot; a semi-colon in dialog reveals character.   The little kid telling his dad about the ogre in the barn won't speak in a way that semi-colons capture, but the scholar/wizard/teacher/other authority figure may.  Characters who lecture, who expect to speak without interruption, who have organized thoughts and experience in speaking...they will use (mental) semi-colons and capturing that register in your work is good. 





Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2012 10:07 AM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 195


The purpose of punctuation--the real purpose--is to make meaning clear to the reader.  Not just the blunt obvious meaning, but the nuances of meaning, which in fiction are a lot more complex than in (most) nonfiction.  Punctuation marks are tools in a writer's toolkit...like gadgets in a kitchen drawer.  Depending on what you're cooking, you may use the straight paring knife much more than the bird-beak (or vice versa), or the melon-baller more (or less) than the garlic press.  But every one has a use, and one cook's preference for a tool doesn't mean a different cook can't use something else.. 

Trying to avoid a punctuation mark is missing the point of the exercise--your focus needs to be on conveying to the reader the meaning you intend.   Use what you need.  If a great writer doesn't use semi-colons (or whatever else you want to use), that doesn't mean (even if he/she says so) that you can't use them.   Great writers may just be smarting off.   They're writers, not saints. 

Here's an article about semi-colons that takes a different tack: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/02/semicolons-a-love-story/

As for using commas "way, way too much," one of the great writers of the 20th c., Winston Churchill, used commas the way I use seasoning in cooking--lavishly.   He read his work aloud, and stuck in a comma whenever he wanted a pause.  Maybe you're like that.  On the other hand, some writing habits breed commas.  Serial adjectives and adverbs that need commas between them: "...the long, low, rippling waves of grass."   Sometimes you need those modifier series and commas to create a mood--and sometimes you have the habit of always using multiple modifiers.   In avoiding semi-colons, you may be creating a need for more commas.   (E.g. "We went to the zoo, and we saw many animals" could be "We went to the zoo; we saw many animals.") 

You might try taking one paragraph and rewriting it with different punctuation--not so much focusing on getting rid of commas as on the effects of changing punctuation.  Again, the focus should not be on eliminating--or forcing a certain level of use of--a punctuation mark, but on helping the reader understand exactly what you mean.   Read the variants aloud.  What do the changes mean for the flow?  Where does your voice go up or down, or change emphasis, when you change punctuation?  If you know someone who's an actor--especially a voice actor--ask them to read several versions.  "We went to the zoo.  We saw many animals" will sound different from "We went to the zoo and we saw many animals."  Ditto with "We went to the zoo; we saw many animals" and "We went to the zoo--we saw many animals."   Try it with just a comma, no and.  Try it with ellipsis.  Each one has a different feel. 




DJS
Posted: Saturday, November 23, 2013 10:25 AM

Punctuation is only a problem when you fail to understand that nothing about it is problematic. Think of punctuation as traffic signs erected to safely control the flow of traffic. A stop sign and red lights are periods. A yellow light is a semi-colon; proceed at your own risk either a dash or a comma.   As has been often noted, reading your work out loud will teach you how to punctuate. It's all about pacing, rhythm and coherency. Before stories were written down they were spoken. Punctuation mimics the natural pauses and stops reflected in the spoken word. Notice I did not use a comma after "written down" because, though it was a phrase and therefore demanded a comma to be properly punctuated, there was no natural pause after "down". Creative writing is complemented, not controlled, by so-called proper punctuation. When you write, you are telling a story, not trying to get an A from your English teacher. Notice I inserted a comma after "write" to denote the natural pause. If you strive mightily to punctuate "properly" you'll tie your writing in knots. Notice I did not use a comma after the phrase ending with "properly" because no natural pause occurred; although under different circumstances a pause may have occurred and subsequently insisted on the employment of a comma. Speaking your story aloud will not only eliminate your punctuation conundrums but afford you the discipline to pare away excessive verbiage. (Yes, I know verbiage means "excessive" but the combination makes better sense. Another example of when meaning and creativity should rule the day.) As I read and review on Book Country, the most common affront to good writing is redundancy, this bad habit of using a medley when a single note will do nicely. My mantra, for other writers as well as myself, is "that which is removed is more important than that which is added." As for punctuation, it need not be feared or declared war upon. Semi-colons should be used judiciously. More importantly, exclamations points should be rarely used! My major concern, not only with punctuation or writing in general, is the bad habits picked up by incessant blogging and twitting constantly blurring the lines between meaningless chatter and meaningful literature. Examine any great work of literature, including Shakespeare, and you will discern that the characters, not the Zeitgeists, were the main characters.

 

 

 

 


 

Jump to different Forum...