For several years now, I’ve seen multiple authors who compose writing “advice” pieces share something that disturbs me. The first time I saw it, which was about fifteen years ago, I shrugged it off as the musings of an incompetent hack, but now, as I’ve seen it several times in several places, I’m concerned that it’s indicative of a deeper erosion in the fundamentals of our language. This advice has to do with the use of the semicolon. Actually, to be more accurate, the writers advise not to use it, ever, because it’s a meaningless symbol. The writer and teacher in me bristle at the notion that a piece of punctuation is useless just because they themselves don’t know how to use it.
I don’t want to spend this whole entry on the proper uses of the semicolon because that would be pretty boring, but I feel like a basic explanation is necessary. The period represents a full stop. I’ve ended this thought and am moving on to another one. The comma represents a pause during the course of a thought, perhaps to distinguish between a group of three or more, to set off an appositive, or to illustrate a transitional clause. The semicolon is used when the writer doesn’t quite want a full stop; the two thoughts are somehow connected. It can also be used to separate a complex series such as when the writer needs to describe a place and a character; show deep, intricate emotions; or illustrate multiple actions occurring simultaneously. These uses of the semicolon are relatively simple but are important for conveying subtlety or precision of thought.
It baffles me that anyone would advise not using a tool in the chest, especially one that can offer so much flexibility in the expression of thought. I can’t imagine a master carpenter telling an apprentice not to learn how to use a reciprocating saw because they already know how to use a skill saw. Both tools are important for achieving different kinds of cuts, and knowing how to use each one allows the carpenter to do more on the job site. The semicolon is just a punctuation tool and a relatively simple one at that, so to me, the lack of understanding of how to use it points to a larger issue in our culture: a decline in subtlety of thought and nuance.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. It could just be that the particular people who’ve offered this advice are crappy writers with delusions of grandeur. I don’t know. What I do know is that the semicolon isn’t that difficult a piece of punctuation to master, so to any young writers who stumble across this entry, please, learn how to use the tools of your trade, as many of them as you can. Otherwise, you’re just a jackleg carpenter who can’t properly build a house.
5 thoughts on “Pause, Stop, or Half-Stop”
I’m not a fan of semicolons. They have their uses, just not much in casual fiction. I find them more useful in nonfiction or academic writing. They tend to look pretentious in fiction, a bit Victorian even. Then again, I don’t write terribly complex sentences in my fiction. My readers don’t want to be aware of the prose or parse out anything too long. Then again, I had an English teacher and three editors who were death on complex sentences, hating even commas.
I agree Alex. People are becoming to lazy to want to produce really good writing. Maybe I am just to “old school” to be comfortable with the easy way. In not teaching or using many of the “old ways” in life period, people are setting themselves up for being controlled, whether they realize it or not. I follow punctuation automatically when reading. I don’t always use it correctly when writing though.
When I first started writing, I overused semi-colons like they were going out of style. Then I heard the “never use semi-colons” line and tried to avoid them like the plague, even reworking sentences to avoid using them. These days, I have no problems with the semi-colon, but use them as sparingly (<–AHK! -ly verb!) as possible, much like with -ly verbs. They have their uses, but a lot of beginning writers (myself included back in the day) have a bad habit of relying on them way too much.
Thank you for posting this. I don’t think I’m a heavy user of semicolons, but if left to my own devices I would probably place 3-5 of them in a 3000-word short story. Having once been chastised on this very topic, I find myself falling back on the dash, which seems to be more popular with editors these days. Is there hope for the lowly semicolon in my future? I’m willing to forego them to get published, but I’d rather not.
I say keep using them and find editors who are smart enough to recognize them 😉