EDITING 101: 27 – Semicolons…

Semicolons

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’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

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.

Susan

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42 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 27 – Semicolons…

  1. As usual, Susan, you have answered a question I’ve had regarding semicolons. I was confused on when to use a comma or semicolon. So, as I understand it, one would use a semicolon when commas would make the sentence confusing or unclear. I’ve read many blogs that say it should never be used in fiction or in dialogue. So, that is only a personal preference then? I am learning that I don’t know as much about punctuation as I thought I did! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • If they are two separate sentences, you use a semicolon.

      If it’s a list of items with interior commas (that would be unclear if you used all commas), then you use a semicolon.

      However, just because a sentence is unclear when it contains a comma does not mean that it will be fixed with a semicolon! So be careful with that.

      As for the use of semicolons, there are uneducated (or opinionated) “editors” out there who insist a semicolon should never be used in fiction or in dialogue and will delete every single one. Same thing with “ly” adverbs or using “that.” There is NOTHING WRONG WITH ANY PART OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE as long as it’s used appropriately and correctly and not overused.

      Sorry to shout, but I’ve had to say this soooo many times. “Never use an ‘ly’ adverb!” “Delete all your uses of ‘that’!” and “Never use a semicolon in dialogue!” are all incorrect blanket rules. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to tell which grammar “rules” are true and which are false. I’ve edited manuscripts where every instance of “that” was meticulously deleted and some needed to be reinserted. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think maybe it’s because so many authors overuse them. Especially adverbs. Many times a stronger word could be used, or an action, that would describe it better. I know I am guilty of certain repetitive words. I have to be careful. Thanks again for all of your help, Susan. I’m sure you have to do a lot of repeating yourself! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

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