The Elegant and Inescapable Semicolon

Share

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.

For example:

  • 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.

For example:

  • 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:

For example:

  • 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.

In conclusion:
Semicolons are used primarily for two reasons:

  1. To connect two closely related ideas through emphasis
  2. 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.

Share

11 comments to The Elegant and Inescapable Semicolon

  • Semicolons are beautiful; semicolons are fine.
    I love semicolons. I use them some of the time.
    I use them in my narrative. I use them ’cause they’re fun.
    If I had a hundred semicolons, I’d only use the one.

    (badly crimped from my favorite song about sandwiches).

    -NGD

  • Yay for semicolons! I admit I’ve been ambivalent about them. I’ve been culling them from my writing because I’d heard rumors that they’d fallen out of fashion. I’m fighting the good fight to keep them when I teach my students, but they are doing their best to kill them, either from non-use or misuse. Alas. But after this, I’ll consider how to use them in my work. :)

  • A writer I admire once advised, “People do not speak in semicolons”, a stance I’ve taken to heart. I never use them in dialogue, employing the noble em-dash instead, but I certainly utilize them when appropriate in the narrative sections of fiction, and of course for technical writing, they are essential.

    “When I use a semicolon, the sentence knows it’s been punctuated.”
    —Lucille Redmond

    “I have always been addicted to something or other, usually something there’s no support group for. Semicolons, for instance, I can never give up for more than two hundred words at a time.”]
    —Hilary Mantel

  • Unicorn

    Hmm. I’ll have to keep a close eye on those semicolons. I think I tend to use them too much and in the wrong places.
    Thank you for the post, McKenna.
    Unicorn
    P. S. Am I the only person who feels like writing a story about David, the Tenor; Christopher, the Bold; Anna, the Fleet-of-Foot; and Professor Higgins, the Perpetually Late?

  • Razziecat

    I could not write without the semi-colon; it’s indispensable. :)

  • Hooray for the semi-colon. Sure, you could write excellent prose without it, but why would you? I treasure my semi-colons, though I use them much more in my academic writing than in my fiction and almost never in dialogue. I would like to write a character who actually does speak in semi-colons. A few very old and extremely erudite classics professors I know speak that way. Mind you, they also speak in Homeric verse sometimes too and that’s even harder to imitate.

  • On a quick break between workshops and panels and wanted to add my two cents. Thanks to McKenna for the great post, and to everyone for their great (and amusing) comments. I have to say that I like and find the semicolon to be immensely useful, and I learned more about how to do it right from reading Shirley Jackson than from anywhere else. That woman wields a mean semicolon.

  • BillSmith

    This is going to be very helpful. Most of my sentences would benefit quite well from a few semicolons. Would definitely help to cut down on the number of commas in my narrative(sometimes wonder if I have more commas than words).

  • Thanks for this. I often find students misusing semicolons, esp. when they should be using colons or commas (i.e. because the clauses are dependent, not independent but related).

  • Alan Kellogg

    Funny, I though a semi-colon is what truckers wind up with after hours behind the wheel.

  • McKenna was having trouble logging in, but asked me to pass this along:

    Thank you for your comments on the Elegant and Inescapable Semicolon. It’s wonderful to find other semicolon advocates out there. Please drop by my blog for Grammatical Thursdays, a category of 60-second grammar ‘lessons.’