Friday, October 8

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, October 08, 2010 8 comments
Dear Editor-on-call:

When is it best to use a semicolon instead of a period?

Yours truly,
Pausing for effect
(aka Shannon O'Donnell at Book Dreaming)


Dear Pausing,

True confession time. I despise semicolons.

When I became managing editor of a scholarly journal two years ago, I discovered an ugly secret. Academics use semicolons by the barrel-full to string together the most convoluted run-on sentences imaginable. Spend a few days with my copy-editing pile and you'll understand how hateful this problem truly is.

You might say I've been unduly influenced to see semicolons as the enemies of clear, brisk writing. They strike me as stuffy and really belonging to the realm of nonfiction. I rarely see them in genre fiction, except to clarify items in a series when there's already a comma in one or more of the items.

For example:
Buttercup packed her lacy, pink day dress; a floor-length, green velvet gown, which had once been Mother's; six chemises; and three sets of gloves.

Indeed, semicolons can replace the "and" in a compound sentence, when you want more separation than a comma, but less than a period. These instances should be rare.

For example:
Ginny's wand sailed out of her hand; it landed right in Neville's pudding.

Am I out of line here, hating on semis? Feel free to defend your precious punctuation in the comments.


  1. I like them fine when used properly and in small doses (your latter example is my tendency). Less is more. I allow myself no more than 1 per chapter, preferably less.
    I HATE when people use them in dialogue (inside the quotation marks). I suppose they use them to denote a pause in speech, but there are far better, more concise ways of doing so.
    I know these are all stylistic preferences, but anything overused will pull readers out of the story. We all have our tics, and admitting them is the first step to recovery. (was I parenthetical enough? *tic*)

    Have a delightful weekend, Laurel. :)

  2. I happen to love semicolons, but only when they are used properly and rarely. They are, for me, that elusive sighting of an endangered-list bird, beautiful to behold because the sighting doesn't come around often.

    But I loved your rant. :)

  3. I despise them too. They're very distracting. Every time I see one, I'm compelled to reread the sentence one or two times just to make sure it's being used correctly, which it usually isn't. And to me, anything that interrupts the flow should be eliminated. :)

  4. Lola: I know what you mean about tics. I am overly enamored of ellipses and em dashes. I have to take care to Well, you know, go overboard. :-D

    Julie: Wow, you make them sound so pretty, like the black swan of literature!

    Abby: In the nonfic stuff I edit, the authors think semis HELP flow, showing how ideas are connected. It makes me a little crazy, because the ideas being in the same paragraph is adequate connectedness. When any sentence runs five or more lines (our record so far is 9), you can bet the reader will get lost.

  5. I tend to overuse my semicolon the way I do my em-dash. It's a terrible habit. But I do try to go back and edit them out afterward. :)

  6. Thanks, Laurel. I feel much better. I don't like to see them overused, but I was beginning to think it was just me. It seems like everywhere I turn lately there are semicolons attacking.

    P.S. I received my gift card yesterday, safe and sound. Thank you so much! :-)

    Have a wonderful weekend.

  7. I don't hate them, but I don't really use them either. Every once in a while one will sneak in. I'm much more likely to abuse the lovely em-dash. :)

  8. I used to love them... back when I was first starting to write and still dreamy from reading Lord of the Rings. (Actually, there arent' many semis in LOTR, I recently discovered). Now I find they start to pop off the page and distract me, if there is more than, say, one per chapter.