Worst Writing Advice: Semicolons — Are They Even Legal?

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I had planned on talking about semicolons in the same post as contractions, but when I started typing, I realized I had too much material for one post, and each piece of bad advice deserved its own spotlight, such as it is.

So without further ado, I bring you [insert your own musical soundtrack of dread here]

SEMICOLONS

The semicolon is a piece of punctuation that brings out strong emotions in people. I have never met anyone who feels ambivalent about them — either they love semicolons or they hate them with every fiber of their being.

Of those who hate the semicolon, the numbers seem to fall into two camps: the I-Don’t-Know-How-to-Use-Them-Properly people and the Semicolons-Are-Forbidden people.

I get that some people may not know how to use them.

Punctuation can be a tricky thing at times, and a punctuation mark that isn’t really a full stop but isn’t really a comma can get mighty confusing. Not knowing is perfectly fine, and provides job security to editors all over the globe. Semicolonially inept (semicolonically? nope) writers give me one more way to show how I can help to polish their work. And if I had to make up a statistic on the spot, I’d say that easily 70% of the writers out there are challenged by the seemingly innocuous mark. So it’s really no big deal. Just ask your editor to fix it and you’re golden.

But the other group of writers concern me because they are victims of the Worst Writing Advice. Every so often, in writer/editor groups, I see a post that goes something like this: “I read somewhere that you shouldn’t use semicolons in fiction. What should I do with a sentence like this?”

So . . . once again, I’m here to tell you that a “rule” is not actually a rule. There is nothing anywhere that prohibits the use of semicolons. Ever. Not in nonfiction, not in fiction, not on a boat, not with a goat, not in the rain, not on a train.

The most strenuous of the WWA-givers can only come up with such weak reasoning as, “I feel it’s better,” or “Author McFamous doesn’t use them,” or my personal favorite, “Semicolons make people have to stop and think.” Commenters on a particularly fired-up thread tried to equate use of semicolons with not putting readers first.

To that, I say, WHAT? Seriously, whatwhatwhat? Let’s think about this. If a reader doesn’t really know what a semicolon does or how to use it properly, they’re not going to be tripped up by seeing it in the narrative. That reader will see all commas, semicolons, periods, and ellipses as roughly the same thing: a pause of sorts. They don’t give a rip about independent clauses, dependent clauses, missing text, list format, or speech interruption. They just keep reading and the whole thing is a non-incident. They’re there to read, not to analyze the latest best-seller for its sentence structure.

Chalk this up to yet another guideline that has gotten misconstrued along the way. All punctuation serves a purpose. Sometimes the differences are more obvious (question mark vs. exclamation mark) and some provide a subtle nuance that serves a particular end. Bottom line: if you don’t like semicolons, don’t use them. No one is forcing you. But don’t tell others they aren’t allowed to, just because you don’t like seeing them.

A few very rough guidelines mention that semicolons are used less often in dialogue than they are in the narrative when writing fiction. That makes sense because of the way we talk and think, but again, it’s not a hard & fast rule. Other editors have mentioned that semicolons are rarely used in marketing copy. Again, this makes sense because marketing is all about the shorter sentences and punchy impact. Shorter sentences don’t lend themselves to a need for semicolons.

Other than that, I can’t think of many situations where I’d recommend removing one that’s used properly. I’ll leave you with a quote that will hopefully inspire you to sprinkle semicolons throughout your manuscript without fear:

“We use semicolons for the same reason we replace cement floors with marble: cement floors are functional but are not as elegant, not as aesthetically pleasing as marble. [ . . . ] Business memos do not need semicolons. Creative writers do.” — Noah Lukeman, The Art of Punctuation

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Copyeditor. Grammar thug in the nicest, kindest way. I’m not scary, even for an editor. Find me at easyreaderediting.com

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