Friday, December 14, 2018

Semicolon, my new love

This post was first published on June 11, 2009

My knowledge of all things punctuation-y is flimsy. In the past, I’ve thought- “Okay now I’ve got it” but, sadly, I didn’t, and when someone pointed it out I felt a bit embarrassed about my proclamation made firmly from Dunderhead Land. I bought Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (ESL) and somehow feel I’ve made a breakthrough. I think I now understand the scariest punctuation mark of them all: the semicolon.

Before ESL, I avoided the semicolon. I just accepted it was a punctuation mark out of my league. It was for writers who really got it; people who know what a non-defining participle clause is, for example. Those people do not include me. I just accepted that I would make my way through the writing world with the comma and the full stop. I would manage. If I needed more, I might resort to a dash, but that was moving toward shaky ground. It was okay. It was a smaller life, but still a life.

But after ESL, I feel I can now use the semicolon with a bit of authority. And doesn’t writing look so nice with a semicolon? It is one of the handsome punctuation marks, not the most handsome though; I still love a question mark, but frankly, who doesn’t?

Semicolons alleviate your reader from that timeless question all readers battle with-“Did I pause long enough there?” The writer who is adept with the semicolon allows the reader to rest at ease, literally. She takes the reader by the hand and says, “I don’t want you to pause as long as a full stop or rush off in a comma-like sort of way. I want you to wait for that in-between length; a semicolon length”. It makes the reader believe that you know what you are doing, that you know why an intermediate length pause is needed at that particular spot. It is a reason quite highbrow and literary, and it will be very difficult for the reader to figure it out. They must just accept that you know what is best for them. And that’s good; readers like that- being bossed around. Of course, the side benefit is you come off looking far smarter than you actually are. It’s win-win.

So use that semicolon; there is nothing to be afraid of. (Unless you use it incorrectly on your blog and some smarty pants points it out. That is not a threat. Really.)

Lauri Kubuitsile is the author of The Scattering and Signed, Hopelessly in Love, which was recognised by South Africa's O Magazine as one of the best reads of 2011. Lauri has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards. She twice won Africa's premier prize for children's writing, The Golden Baobab. She also won the creative writing prize sponsored by Botswana's Department of Youth and Culture. In 2011, she was shortlisted for Africa's most prestigious short story prize, The Caine Prize. Lauri blogs at Thoughts from Botswana


  1. Thank you for this post! I tend to not use it either and keep hoping maybe some nice editor will fix all of them for me:)

  2. Ah, the semicolon. When you use them you must be Goldilocks. Not too many, not too few. And when you finish writing, sit in a rocking chair and eat porridge.

    This was a fun post, Lauri. And much more informative than my silly comment!

  3. I love this post because grammar is not one of my strong suits. I truly rely on editors to fix the mistakes. One of these days I'm going to take a course and finally get the terminology and usage down.
    Karen Walker

  4. Karen and Tiffany I am useless at grammar too.
    Helen I do believe you are right- not too few not too many. A sprinkling.

  5. I need to learn grammar. How I got through school as an english major... I do not know at all.

  6. I find it dreadfully ironic that in America ESL means something entirely different, and yet, so the same really. LOL.


  7. I try and remember the semi-colon as a semi-period, a soft period; that usually works.

  8. I love them, dear little blighters, although I try not to get carried away. I used two in one sentence recently and it looks good, but I wonder if some editor will smirk when she sees them.

    Have you read "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" by Lynne Truss? A perennial giggle.

  9. Ah, grammar. I'm not an expert, but I try to learn. I've had EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES on my bookshelf for a long time. I never cracked it open.

    Now I will.

    Thanks for the fun post!

  10. A Chris Roerden short, "People don't speak in semicolons." Our major editor loves them, even in dialogue.
    My skills are below an acceptable level. I have had three editors rearrange the same sentence and the last one put it back the way I had written it in the first place.
    ESL is a fun book, but it is English English and American English does differ.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.