Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Lofty Semicolon

As in all professions--all of life, actually--there are people behind the scenes known only as "the powers that be," the nebulous and unidentified "they." The same is true for authors. Whoever "they" are, those powers that be, they have deemed the semicolon to be too formal for fiction writing. I'm not certain I agree; all writing tools should be available for all authors, and that includes tools of punctuation.
These powers also say that the semicolon has no place in dialogue: "No one speaks in semicolons," someone once explained to me. That hit me as rather bizarre at the time. If we were to describe what people "speak" in, we'd be limited to dashes, periods, and long strings of run-on sentences. Dialogue is supposed to be natural, but not necessarily realistic, which is why hesitation utterances are kept at a minimum regardless of how often they are heard in real discourse. But I can see the point that a semicolon is too formal for written dialogue. Which is why, as an editor, I mark it every time.
I'll mark it just as quickly in the prose when it's used incorrectly, and what I'm discovering is, more often than not, it is used incorrectly. Like every other punctuation mark, the semicolon has rules, and apparently fiction authors need to be reminded what they are.
A semicolon can be used:
      1. instead of a conjunction (and, but, or) to join two complete sentences together that have different subjects: I wanted pizza; he wanted hamburgers. 
      2. to introduce a clause beginning with therefore, however, indeed, namely, etc.: We couldn't agree on what to eat; therefore, Suzanne offered a different choice. 
      3. in front of therefore, however, namely, etc. when a list is involved: We had three choices then; namely pizza, hamburgers, and Chinese take-out.
      4. to join two complete sentences along with a conjunction when one or more commas are in the first sentence: Since we were in Suzanne's car, we decided the choice should be hers; so she drove us to Pei Wei's.
Nonfiction and scholastic authors should learn all four of these uses, but I think fiction writers would agree that numbers two through four are too formal. Using words like therefore, however, namely, and any of their equivalents in fiction adds a stilted formality to the prose that few authors strive for--unless they are presenting a stilted, formal character. The semicolons can be replaced with commas, the clauses can be split into two sentences, conjunctions can be used.
Number one should be the most common use of the semicolon for fiction writers. Tying two sentences together into one thought with a semicolon is sometimes necessary for the mood or tone the author is trying to set, so I'm not as quick to mark out its use.
Unless it's used so often it becomes distracting, which I've discovered in many of the manuscripts I've edited lately. So, along with the four listed above, the big rules for the use of semicolons are: 1. use sparingly and 2. use correctly.
Novelists are ruled by The Chicago Manual of Style. If ever there is a doubt about the proper use of a semicolon, check out sections 6.54-6.58.
I know this was dry and boring--just like my old grammar classes were. I'll try not to do this often; but meantime, thanks for letting me get it off my chest.
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  1. Not dry at all! I love using semi colons because they're so often forgotten. But you're right, we need to use them correctly and sparingly.