I’ll be teaching at the NC Writer’s Network Conference Spring Conference this weekend, so I’ve asked my good friend McKenna Donovan to share her thoughts on use of the semicolon today. I’ve known McKenna for about nine years now; we started studying writing together in 2002 on a writing website called Zoetrope.com, where we were both new, raw, and hungry to learn as much about writing as we possibly could. We hit it off right away. Nearly a decade later, she’s still in the business, having earned an MFA a few years back, and doing a lot of teaching, including on her writing blog McKenna’s Way, where this piece originally appeared. I’m happy to introduce her to my friends here at MW. –Edmund–
Yes, it’s possible to write good prose—fiction, creative non-fiction, non-fiction, poetry—without ever using a semicolon. Many have done so. However, if you pull off your shelves any great work of literature or collection of essays and poetry, you’ll find the semicolon. It’s a brilliant element of great writing. Great writers use it to compose their writing. A semicolon is one of the notes that creates the song on the page. Semicolons are about cadence and emphasis. The reader’s eyes linger on the word just before the semicolon; it creates an echo for the word just after the semicolon.
Here’s our 60-second Grammatical Thursday on the semicolon:
To connect two closely related, independent sentences (clauses)
In regular prose, a semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses (sentences) to show a close connection between their ideas.
- The reader’s eyes linger on the word just before the semicolon; it creates an echo for the word just after the semicolon.Note: Read this out loud, and notice how you pause infinitesimally after the word semicolon. That pause creates emphasis on that word. Then note how the pronoun it, which refers immediately back to semicolon, creates additional emphasis.
Let’s look at this same example, but written as two independent clauses (sentences):
- The reader’s eyes linger on the word just before the semicolon. It creates an echo for the word just after the semicolon.Note: Read this out loud and listen for the “full stop” that occurs after the word semicolon. The word at the end of a sentence receives the greatest emphasis—greater than being placed before a semicolon. However, by starting a new sentence for “It creates an echo,” you lose the close connection between the ideas offered by the two sentences. The end of a sentence tells the reader a new idea is coming, and while that idea might be related, it’s not necessarily closely related.
Let’s look at this example again, but this time as two independent clauses (sentences) joined with “and” (a compound sentence):
- The reader’s eyes linger on the word just before the semicolon, and it creates an echo for the word just after the semicolon.Note: The pause created by a comma is less than the pause created by a semicolon, so the word semicolon receives some, but not much emphasis. The reader continues with the sentence. What’s intriguing here is that these two thoughts, when written as one sentence, lose their individuality. What you intend to be two closely related thoughts, becomes one long thought. The emphasis is gone.
Each of the examples above presents the same two ideas: the first idea, about the word just before the semicolon; the second, about how it creates an echo.
To clarify a series (a list)
When we write a list or series, punctuation is simple when each item in the list is one word. Use a comma.
- We were missing some of our group: David, the Tenor; Christopher, the Bold; Amy, the Fleet-of-Foot; and Professor Higgins, the Perpetually Late.Note: Each item in the list has its own punctuation (in this instance, a comma):
- David, the Tenor
- Christopher, the Bold
- Amy, the Fleet-of-Foot
- Professor Higgins, the Perpetually Late
Without semicolons, this sentence would read as follows:
- We were missing some of our group: David, the Tenor, Christopher, the Bold, Amy, the Fleet-of-Foot,and Professor Higgins, the Perpetually Late.
Note: While this is legible, the reader must slow down to parse the items; using semicolons eases this process.
Semicolons are used primarily for two reasons:
- To connect two closely related ideas through emphasis
- To clarify a complex series, where items within the series have their own internal punctuation.
For me, a semicolon is about the song on the page, i.e., how our writing moves forward and points backward, how it sounds to the ear, either out loud or sotto voce, and how it affects the emotions of our readers.
Writers speak of music in their writing. Why would we eradicate one of the grace notes from our repertoire? So whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, academic or informal essays, journalistic or blog prose, experiment with the semicolon.