The great semicolon debate

Okay, it’s not that “great” a debate, but there was a fun piece yesterday on the Times website about semicolons, and how the author came to change his long-held antipathy toward semicolons—ingrained at an early age from Kurt Vonnegut—by reading William James. Love the illustration, and if you have time, read the comments—lots of great feedback and citations there.

Personally, I’ve had a negative opinion of semicolons, and as an editor I would regularly strike them from authors’ manuscripts. My feeling, echoed by every copyeditor I ever worked with, was that in kids’ books they stood out like sore thumbs. Indeed, I loved the comment from the sixth-grade teacher, who wrote that when she sees a semicolon in a kid’s paper, it’s invariably plagiarized. It’s just not a device that feels natural to a kid’s way of viewing the world, and as such, should probably be avoided at all costs.

But now that I’m an agent and working on a lot of adult projects, I’m finding that in certain contexts and genres, semicolons not only make sense but fill a vital role. Certainly in nonfiction, I agree with the author that the deft use of a semicolon can suggest a connection that other forms of punctuation—especially my beloved em-dashes—can’t quite pull off.

In fact, I’m wondering if in general, genre and categories provide a better guide for usage, rather than a simple yes/no in all circumstances. Indeed, I found it odd that the author of the piece didn’t acknowledge that his change of heart resulted from reading nonfiction (James) rather than fiction (Vonnegut). But then again, when it comes to style, maybe fiction and non aren’t the apples and oranges I’m making them out to be?

Anyway, Grammar Fans, I’d love to know your thoughts, and where you fall in the debate. Do you ever use semicolons? If so, for all types of writing? Who knows, depending on the response, you might see some more semicolons in my blog posts going forward; or not.


11 Responses to The great semicolon debate

  1. Despite my love for and all the inspiration I got from Vonnegut. I adore semicolons and em-dashes. I’m shy about using either, although given how much they stand out over other forms of punctuation, I try to limit them to places where they will be most effective. Oddly enough (or so that piece would imply), I use them more when I’m writing fiction than non-fiction. Perhaps this is because I feel they impart a certain style that I’m not seeking when I write an academic paper. They do only work in certain contexts, though. I wouldn’t employ semicolons if my narrator weren’t educated, for example. They certainly would strike me as weird in children’s fiction. As for em-dashes, I tend to use them most frequently for asides, with characters whose minds are prone to wander a bit rather than those who are blunt or always focused on a single point.

  2. Tamara says:

    Semicolons often come across as either exposing a writer’s weaknesses(when used incorrectly) or pompous (when used correctly). As E.B. White famously said, “Semi-colons only prove that the author has been to college.” But, oh, the writer whose language sweeps me off my feet, to which the semicolon is but a filigree! (Which sounds pompous but is true.)

  3. Andrea says:

    I don’t really understand the problem with semicolons, if used correctly. It’s a lot of fuss about something so small.
    I don’t mind if a writer has been to college and I’d rather see a hundred semicolons than one exclamation mark (in something other than dialogue).

  4. Lorelei says:

    They’re another tool. They do link related ideas. It annoys me when I see a comma in their place.

  5. Suilan says:

    I imagine lots of writers have been to college, but apparently it’s expected that they hide this fact. Not just they: anyone with a decent education (or anyone who is really good at something) must hide or downplay it or risk being called a pompous show-off.

    Years ago, on a four-hour train ride, I found myself in the same (six-seat) compartment with three bus drivers who talked about the kind of people they usually drove about (groups of tourists or school classes or office workers on some field trip). The oldest went on and on for half an hour about this busload of teachers, who talked to each other all day about Shakespeare and pretentious stuff like that, pretending to be interested in this boring stuff when really, all they were doing is showing off. The bus driver could not even imagine the possibility that those teachers actually enjoyed discussing Shakespeare, that for them, it was a casual conversation. No, they only did that to prove to each other how smart they were.

    That train ride was 15 years or so ago. Since then, I’ve heard the busdriver’s opinion repeated a thousand times over. People only talk about… because they like to show how educated they are. They only read… They only… use semicolons to show off.

    Is it really so hard to imagine that some writers use semicolons because they enjoy the extra nuance the semicolon provides? That they delight in the fact that the revised sentence sounds even more elegant, reads more smoothly than it did without the semicolon.

    And what’s so bad about having been to college? I don’t give people any grief for not having been to college; why don’t I deserve the same courtesy?

    “cranky, casual bigotry” the article calls it. I like that.

    So obviously, I’m pro-semicolon. By definition, it’s a device that’s to be used sparingly. I count 24 semicolons in my first 100 manuscript pages (epic fantasy). Three of those occur in dialogue, although I tend not to like semicolons in dialogue. It just doesn’t seem to me that people ever talk like that. Most of the time, I’d rather use a run-on sentence here, because that’s how people talk.

    As a reader, on the other hand, the semicolon is not something I would miss, as long as the prose flows elegantly. What I can’t endure is choppy prose; too many short sentences in a row, or a total absence of any sentence over ten words, and I simply can’t get comfortable, so I won’t read on. Sometimes it would be as easy as putting a few semicolons in place of the periods to smoothen the prose out. Or conjunctions.

  6. Kim Smith says:

    As a writer of fiction I’m told I’ve a natural rhythm: narration has a rhythm; each character speaks their own banter and pace, and a few even cuss like a sailor. Learn every rule. Bend them as you will. Consistency, is key.

  7. Simone says:

    I must be that rare kid who liked to use semi-colons in my essays, but never plagiarized! I’ve always liked them, but I don’t think they work in dialogue at all, as someone mentioned above. I’d definitely go for the run-on sentence instead.

  8. Sarah Henson says:

    I write fiction and I love semi-colons, but I try to use them sparingly (I feel like I’m at some sort of semi-colons anonymous meeting. “Hello, my name is Sarah and I love semi-colons.” “Hi, Sarah!”). Sometimes it just doesn’t feel right to split something into two separate sentences. A lot of my writing is based on feel and rhythm. A semi-colon can even out the beats. Too many, though, and it gets distracting.

    I disagree about using semi-colons in kid lit (I know, who am I to disagree with a former editor and tons of copy-editors?) because I think reading for fun can still be educational. No, I’m not one of those there-must-be-a-lesson-in-every-story writers, and I don’t mean kid lit as in chapter books. Why can’t we use semi-colons in YA, though? How are “regular kids”–those who aren’t English nuts–going to learn to use semi-colons and other various punctuation marks unless they see them used correctly?

    We didn’t really have “YA” when I was a teen, so I read adult books. I didn’t major in English or writing–I have a science degree–so my knowledge of punctuation comes from my K-12 education and from reading. In fact, I learned more about writing from reading than I ever did in school. To me, it feels like we’re dumbing down YA by keeping things simple. I think we should not only go to where kids are, but push them further. I would love to hear a kid ask “what’s that?” about a semi-colon, and then go on to use it, and learn how to use it correctly. Viva la semi-colon!

    • Robert Shaw says:

      I can’t believe that you think you didn’t have YA when you were a teen. Young Adult, or YA as it has been coined, is nothing but a marketing tool created by greedy corporate publishing houses to sell more books. Stories for Young Adults, however have been around forever. The 1800s saw Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series and Emily of New Moon series, Frances Hodgson Burnett (more children’s but still), heck, in the 60s and seventies were Paul Zindel’s books (and they’re still round), a great story called The Dragon in the Garden by Reginald Maddock. The list goes on and on. You had YA when you were a teen, you just didn’t know it because a huge publishing conglomerate hadn’t told you yet by inventing the marketing angle.

  9. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I used semi-colons a lot once upon a time. I ended up hating them because I felt I used them in preference to a full-stop – that they were a sign of indecisiveness on my part. Now I don’t use them at all. Ever. However, I sent a ms off to be proofed/copy-edited a while ago and noticed a few semi-colons when I got it back. I don’t have a problem with this. I’m sure the individual in question only put them in where appropriate.

    I still have an unhealthy addiction to dashes, ellipses etc.

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