Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.
Courtesy of Adirondack Editing
Just what is a semicolon, why does it exist, and how do you use it? I’ve seen writers (and editors!) claim that a semicolon should never be used in dialogue, should never be used in narrative, or should never be used at all! There are obviously very strong feelings surrounding the semicolon, as well as some myths, and we’ll dispel them today.
A semicolon is this mark between the parentheses (;). It is exactly what it looks like—a cross between a period and a comma. In terms of pausing, a comma is the shortest pause, a semicolon is a little longer, and a period (or full stop, for those of you across the pond) is the longest pause. All three are appropriate punctuation marks in the English language—no matter what style of English you’re using—and can be both underused and overused.
In fiction writing, an author will generally be using semicolons to link together two sentences. This is an example of a proper semicolon use in that regard:
Jessica wondered where Karl was; she walked to the kitchen, musing.
These are two separate sentences which are correctly joined with a semicolon. A mistake sometimes made in this regard is when the punctuation ending each sentence does not match. For instance, this is not correct:
Jessica wondered where Karl was; would she ever see him again?
Because the first sentence (if by itself) would end in a period/full stop and the second sentence ends in a question mark, they cannot justifiably be connected with a semicolon. As an editor, I would change the semicolon to a period and start a new sentence with “Would…”
The same sort of joining two sentences together can be accomplished within dialogue and is appropriate.
“I thought Karl was with you; maybe he went to the store,” said Jessica.
Since these two sentences can be legitimately connected with a period or full stop, the use of a semicolon is suitable.
Another use for semicolons that an author might need is when a list of items contains commas, so you can’t use commas between the items because it would be confusing:
I went to the store and bought some peppers; franks and beans; a vegetable tray with carrots, celery, and tomatoes; and beer for the barbeque.
If you connected all those items with commas, it wouldn’t be clear as to exactly what was purchased.
I hope that answers all your questions about the infamous semicolon!
Next week we’ll discuss ‘Emphasizing’
This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.
I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.
If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.