Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Semi-Colon Savvy

I have to admit I’m a little bit addicted to the semi-colon. Ever since I learned how to use it properly it's seemed the perfect punctuation; it's stronger than a comma but not the full stop of a period. I even use semi-colons when I’m texting; I just can’t help myself. When one begins using semi-colons one seems to write more formally; it’s like donning a ball gown or tuxedo that makes one stand a little straighter and enunciate more clearly.

Someone once said that the colon is an obnoxious punctuation mark; it orders the reader to infer exactly this from what follows: what the colon precedes is the only possible explanation. The semi-colon, on the other hand, is more polite; it merely indicates that what follows relates to that which precedes. (See what I mean about writing more formally?)

The guidelines for semi-colon use are fairly simple. In a list, a semi-colon can be used instead of a comma, especially where the use of a comma might be confusing. In a sentence a semi-colon separates two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction. This means that where two complete but related sentences could each stand on its own, they can either be joined with a semi-colon or a conjunction (and, but, etc.). A comma needs a conjunction, but a semi-colon can stand on its own. What a semi-powerful piece of punctuation.

How do you feel about semi-colons? Do you avoid using them in your writing? Or are you semi-colon savvy?

Mark April 7th in your diary when author David Baboulene, expert on subtext, will stop by the Blood-Red Pencil on his book tour for The Story Book : A Writer's Guide to Story Development, Principles, Problem-solving and Marketing

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Elsa Neal Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Read up more on Grammar and Punctuation or browse through her Resources for Writers.


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20 comments :

  1. I probably should be using the semi-colon at times when I use a comma instead. Commas seem easier for some reason.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://facebook.com/morgan.mandel

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  2. Good tutorial, Elsa. I use semi-colons a lot in non-fiction writing, but not so much in fiction, especially not in dialogue. I am always surprised when I see them in novels in the dialogue. We don't speak in perfect sentences with all the proper punctuation. LOL

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  3. I have been using the semi-colon for a while now.

    I misused it once as a young writer and I was so embarrassed when I was called up on it that I swore never to make that mistake again.

    You are right about one thing; once you start using it, it can become addictive.

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  4. Ah, Elsa, what a delightful discussion of the semi-colon! Another use of this rather formal bit of punctuation is in place of the comma separating two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction when one or both of the independent clauses contains internal punctuation. And yet another use is the separation of elements of a series when one or more of those elements contains internal commas. All this sounds so boringly grammatical, BUT knowing and applying the rules enhances our writing because it eliminates the "huh?" moments for our readers.

    As for using the semi-colon in fiction, I do so sparingly. In dialogue it seems distracting. It works well in narrative, however, if it's not overused and if it serves its vital purpose of creating clarity.

    Excellent post!

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  5. Maryann, when my comment posted, I saw that we are of the same mind on semi-colons in fiction, particularly dialogue. (This would also hold true of internal dialogue that often appears in italics in books.) Writers, take note. LOL

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  6. Excellent post! I'm trying to use the semi-colon a little more frequently (I lean heavily towards commas)so this was a great refresher.

    Thanks!

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  7. I love the semi-colon! Even when I see them used in dialogue, I read it to mean the speaker is briefly pausing. And I'm charmed by the suggestion that it is less bossy than the colon.

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  8. I've been taught that publishers (at least for fiction) hate them and you should only use them if absolutely necessary and even then it would be better just to create two sentences.

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  9. Hurray! You didn't tell me not to use them.

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  10. What a wonderful tutorial; thanks, Elsa!

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  11. I tend to be a bit trigger happy with semi-colons. I like them, but I do have to examine how often I use them.

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  12. I learned long ago that a semi-colon was a super comma. Like Maryann, I don't use them in dialogue, but sometimes they work so well in narration.

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  13. I rarely use semi-colons. I think it was drummed out of me! It is a bit more formal and old-fashioned style of writing. But sometimes, it's just the right thing to use! (especially in series with commas in between)
    Thanks for this post.

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  14. I lurves the semi colon, but I was told by a crit partner that I shouldn't use them. So, I'm more sparing with them now.

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  15. With one of my stories, I was struggling with a too-formal feel already, so I specifically tried to avoid all semi-colons. But I had about 5 sentences that didn't flow smoothly with any conjunction, so I left those in. :)

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  16. Thanks for all the comments. I'm so glad there are fellow semi-colon enthusiasts out there!

    Elsa Neal
    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

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  17. Semi colons are elegant; then allow your reader space to make connections without force.

    Colons are like the front of an oncoming train: they shunt the rest of the sentence straightways down the track.

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  18. *Semi colons are elegant; THEY allow your reader to make connections without force.

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  19. I <3 semi-colons. I always feel intellectual when I use them - lol.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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