The Horrible Semicolon

Here’s something vaguely interesting: people don’t like semicolons. Not all people, but some people. Editors, mostly. Maybe they see a lot of, I don’t know…misplaced ones, or ones where the sentence should’ve ended ages ago, but someone stuck in a semicolon and kept it going beyond all reasonable expectations; people do that, sometimes. <—see?

I like them for dialogue, or for narrative with a conversational quality. Anything told in first person, anything that’s meant to sound like someone telling you a story, I’d want to use them: bags and bags of semicolons. Well, a few.

It’s just, people don’t talk in proper sentences. They use run-ons and sentence fragments. They stop mid-stream to edit themselves. They relate events out of chronological order. They lose their train of thought, or they hop on a better one. You get things like, well—this one time, my mother was round. I had these long nails that’d scraped all the letters off my keyboard, so she was dictating me an e-mail, expecting me to write what she wanted to say. But I was being an arse and transcribing her actual words. Here’s what I wrote:

“Dear Angus, eh, it’s lovely weather; the weather’s uh, uh, uh, it’s lovely, very, ah, very with the rain’s finally drying up. Nice. And tell him I went to the, tell him the gardens are lovely. I’m bringing, if I can sneak it on the plane, I’ve nipped some hibiscus cuttings. He’ll love these. You’ll love these. Hey! What are you writing? Erase that all!—very funny!”

Real Trump speech material, right there. And my mother’s got a Master’s degree, and she’s quite compos mentis.

So, back to the semicolons: say you’re writing dialogue, and you want it to ring true. You’ll get lines that are difficult to punctuate. Lines that’d be quite ungrammatical, from mouth to paper. You’d write them as spoken, more or less, but you’d split up any run-ons. You’d indicate breaks in continuity with dashes or ellipses. And you’d use semicolons for new ideas where the speaker didn’t take a breath. Sure, you could start the next sentence and make perfect sense, but then you’d lose the whole overeager…the whole, would you quit your yattering? We’ve tuned you out ages ago. Maybe you don’t want that. I want that—not always, but sometimes. In its proper context.

I also like semicolons for paragraphs filled with loads of short sentences. Things can start to feel choppy, with too many of those. Link a couple with a semicolon, you get sort of a…rest. I kicked him; he died. (That was an example, not a confession.)

Then again, I write straight-to-paperback fiction—sometimes even (gasp!) straight-to-Kindle—and I pretend to be less educated than I am so people will like me on the Internet.* Never take professional advice from me.

* Not all the time. Just once in a while, and most days.

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