Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Writer's Toolbox: The Semicolon

A popular post from April 2008

by Annette Lyon

To some people, they're an outdated form of punctuation. To others, they're one more valuable tool in guiding a reader through their work so they hear the correct tempo and beat of the words.

The semicolon is a unique animal. It has a pause length longer than comma but shorter than a period. It's similar in length to the em dash, but it has a different feel to it.

The trick is knowing how to use it properly.

First off, what a semicolon isn't:

A semicolon is NOT a replacement for a regular colon. While it does connect two similar thoughts, it does so in a different way. Quite often (but not always), what comes after a plain old colon cannot stand by itself and still make sense. On the other hand, what comes after a semi colon is fully capable of standing alone as a complete sentence.

In other words, don't do this:

Laura peeked through the curtains and gasped at what she saw; at least a dozen cats walking around, cat food tins and cat poop everywhere, and in the middle of it all, Mrs. Porter sleeping on a lop-sided couch with a cat on her chest.

Replace that semicoon with a colon, and you're good to go.

Why? Reread it. While the portion after where the colon belongs is longer than the part before, it's still not a complete sentence. Yes, we need a pause there, but what comes next is just a series of visual details without the handy-dandy subject and verb that make a real sentence.

Another common mistake is using semicolons in place of em dashes. I am a fan of em dashes and use them all the time. Few rules apply to how you use them (quite possibly why they're so popular; they're hard to use wrong). But you can't take a spot where an em dash (and its lovely pause) would go and necessarily replace it with a semicolon.

Remember the rule of thumb: Both sides of a semicolon must be able to stand on their own.

Another wrong example:

The door burst open, revealing Steve's boss holding a clipboard and looking distraught; lay-off time.

Use an em dash there or add more to make it a full sentence: "lay-off time had arrived," or, "it was lay-off time."

One area of semicolon use is often debated: Can you use it in dialogue?

Many people say to forget about it, that semicolons are outdated nowadays and belong only in non-fiction. Instead, they argue, you should use em dashes in dialogue.

It's all well and good if that's your position. But I personally use semicolons in my fiction all the time, and I've been known to do it in dialogue as well. There are just moments where the pause length, the "breath" for the reader, and the feel I'm looking for can be achieved only with a semicolon.

There are other uses for the semicolon (splitting up items in a series that already have commas, for example), which we may cover another time, but for now, keep in mind the basic rule: Both sides of a semicolon have to made sense by themselves.

Think of the semicolon almost like a "yield" sign between two sentences that makes you look both ways before proceeding. You'll find connections and subtleties in the writing that couldn't be there any other way.


Julie Wright said...

i love a semicolon. Madelaine L'engle loved them to. We're in good company

Karlene said...

I love semicolons too--but I don't often use them in dialog. I'm more likely to use the em dash there.

BTW, I think you mixed up your first example. You have a semicolon in the example, but it should be a colon. Right? (I'm sure it was just a typo.)

Rachelle said...

Thanks for the examples and reminders. I like that rule, both side must be able to stand alone.

Annette Lyon said...

The example was of what NOT to do with a semicolon--so yes, a colon would be correct. That was my point, whether I made it very clearly or not. :)

Don said...

And then there are us who write computer code for our day job, and every single statement ends with a semicolon.

I know where the semicolon is, and my finger goes to it automatically when programming. I'll have to check my MS and see if I automatically use it in my writing as well.

J Scott Savage said...


I think it was the line you put after the example, "Replace that colon with a semicolon, and you're good to go," that makes it confusing. You do have a semi-colon in the sentance already.

Annette Lyon said...

Duly noted and corrected, Jeff.

J Scott Savage said...

But let me add that I printed this blog out and added it to my important stuff folder I keep on my writing desk. I've always been a little intimidated by semicolons. Although I've never met an em-dash I didn't like.