Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Aversion to SemiColons

Happy Wednesday Everyone. Back in the swing of things, as today is a writing post day, I decided to do a post about punctuation. Or more pointedly, semicolons.

Now, I don't know about you, but I don't use them. First of all, I don't know what they're for. According to Strunk and White

If two or more clauses grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction are to form a single complete sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.

Yeah, okay.

Gallagher's romances are entertaining; they are full of love and desire.

(My own play on the example they give.)

It is, of course, equally correct to write each of these as two sentences, replacing the semicolons with periods.

Gallagher's romances are entertaining. They are full of love and desire.

Which is what I do. As I'm typing along in Word, sometimes, when I complete my sentence, my little green squiggly line will appear and then I will go to my Spelling & Grammar tool to see what I've done wrong. (God I love Word.) And it will say, "replace with semicolon". And I do not. I always separate the sentences.


The semicolon is used in ways that are similar to those in which periods and commas are used. Because of these similarities, the semicolon is often thought of as either a weak period or a strong comma.

Now in this chapter, Mirriam and Webster throw out phrases like independent clauses, coordinating conjunctions, grammatical construction of the second illiptical clause, and my favorite, conjunctive adverb. In this chapter, there are ten rules to learn before you can use a semicolon.

My question -- Why?

Why would anyone want to torture themselves learning how to use a semicolon when most of us have enough trouble with a plain old comma?

Why would you want to use a weak period when a full stop will do? Or a strong comma? How many beats is a strong comma anyway? Two? Three? Enough to take a sip of coffee?

Tell me -- Do you use semicolons? Or am I the only one who doesn't? Any other punctuation you want to diss today?

PS In rereading my latest work in progress, I found not one, but two semicolins. My bad. But I still don't like them.

PPS I hope you'll swing by on Friday when I explain my reasons for self-publishing.


Al said...

I don't mind the odd ;
I would certainly go with self publishing again!

Laura Pauling said...

I don't use them to connect two related sentences like in your first example, but I do use them when their are commas within commas and it would be confusing without them.

Ted Cross said...

I like using them, and I often have to ensure that I scale back on them. I use them in place of periods between what could be two independent sentences, but when those sentences truly follow directly from the same idea or thought. I wish I had a great example offhand, but I don't have any of my writing here with me. Sometimes I just feel it's better to have something that isn't a full stop between two ideas or thoughts.

Linda G. said...

I do use them, but sparingly. I'll admit it's annoying when I see them used incorrectly.

Francine Howarth: UK said...


Yes! I do. They're very useful for action sequences:

Damn it all his first thought; the door slammed with velocity. What in hell was her problem?

semi-colon also good for listing:

Her eyes panned the corridor ahead. Vast portraits on the walls impossible to pass without notice, while small table with candelabra; upright chairs; a chaise; and other items less intrusive but worth a glance all the same. Every thing had a value. Every thing had to go.


Anne Gallagher said...

Al -- That's a cute sentence.

Laura -- That's an idea worth trying.

Ted -- Nice to see you out and about again.

Linda -- I wouldn't know what's incorrect or not.

Francine -- I get what you're saying.

Mac said...

I would take a fragment any day over two complete sentences crammed, artificially together. And I hate arbitrarily strung together thoughts.

Nineteenth century writers could get away with long sentences.

Our culture/mindset today is epitomized by impatience with immediate gratification.

Short is good.

Crammed together is bad.

And I deny I'm opinionated.


Cynthia said...

Grammer is a pain, and I wonder as we read how many people even notice the comma and semicolons. LOL

February Grace said...

Yes, I use them. But I'm finding I'm doing so less and less as I edit and going for shorter sentences.

Sometimes, though, for me they're the only thing that really seems to make a sentence read correctly aloud; and that is the final standard by which I judge a sentence.

If you can't read it aloud without the meaning of the emotions in the writing coming through, then a sentence just doesn't work for me.

Hoping to get back to reading your book today- enjoyed what I've read so far! :~D Just so proud of you, and so proud to be able to say "I just bought Anne Gallagher's new book!"


Anne Gallagher said...

Mac -- Oh, I have fragments galore. But that's a whole other post. You opiniated - au contraire, mon ami...

Cynthia -- You know, I think only really persnickety people would notice, but the average reader doesn't even care.

Bru -- I write short and long sentences, but I like commas and periods. A semicolon is such a wasted piece of punctuation. You are such a doll to say that about my book! Thanks so much.

Anthony Lee Collins said...

Hemingway would have approved of your solution. :-)

And Laura is correct, that is the other appropriate use of a semicolon.

I avoided them for years, until a reader/friend embarrassed me into using them when appropriate. In dialogue, I use them only when the speaker is somebody who would know how a semicolon should be used. Other people get commas.

KarenG said...

I use them when I revise, and go in and find tons of commas used inappropriately. So I'll replace with semicolons, but they do need to be used sparingly. No one should read a book and say, "There's sure a lot of semicolons in this." Or commas, or any kind of punctuation. Punctuation needs to be invisible, not a distraction.

Bossy Betty said...

I must be a true nerd. The title of this post got me all excited! I limit my students to three semicolons per three-page paper. I tell them they can go wild after they are not under my watch.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I let my editor worry about the semicolons, because quite honestly, I never know when I should use them or not use them. Sometimes I throw one in my prose to feel smart. It never works.

I thought you might enjoy this post: If You Take My Semicolon I'll Have to Kill You

Stina Lindenblatt said...

My understanding about semicolons is that they give a longer pause than a comma, but not as long as a period. They are more popular in the UK than in the US. JK Rowling LOVES them. I occasionally use them.

DL Hammons said...

Microsoft WORD keeps recommending them, and I'll tweak the sentence and change them to periods instead. As always, I'll avoid what I don't understand. :)

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

I do use semicolons. I like them. BUT i don't like how often spellcheck recommends them. Get your mitts off my prose, pc!
I don't use them that often, but sometimes i hit two sentences that i just want to link together. Usually for some pacing reason

Anne Gallagher said...

Anthony -- Gotta love Hem. I could never use them in dialogue. It seems so...wrong somehow.

Karen -- Absolutely. Punctuation needs to be invisible. and to me a semicolon is blaring.

Betty -- I bet you just wanted to correct my usage, huh? 3 per 3 pages isn't that bad. However I would never use one.

Michelle -- Thank you. Now I don't feel so bad I don't know how to use them either. I'll so have to read that post.

Stina -- I have found that UK writers like them a lot more than US. Wonder why?

DL -- You and me both buddy.

Sarah -- For pacing, I really would rather use a comma. or a period. I'm still now sure what semicolons are really for. Besides all that cunjunction junk.

VR Barkowski said...

I hate them, too, Anne! They stop me dead in my tracks, whereas a period allows me to pause and move on to a new thought. The only time I ever use a semicolon is when I'm dealing with multiple series. Then I MAY use one for clarity.

How much do I hate them? I have this quote from KURT VONNEGUT framed on my office wall:

"Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

Lydia Kang said...

I rarely use them too. I think I have an aversion. They seem kind of stiff.

Anne Gallagher said...

VR -- Kurt Vonnegut is my new favorite man!

Lydia -- Either too stiff or too flimsy, like you can't make up your mind what you want to do.

Sarah Pearson said...

I use them way too much, and often wrongly, in my first draft, then I take them all out again :-)

Anne Gallagher said...

Sarah -- That's a writing rule -- When in doubt, take them out. Good for you.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You've read my work - you know I don't use them!

JeannetteLS said...

I use them too much I think, but the theory I learned goes that they have their best effect when the two clauses are very close--the second sentence is often shorter and clarifies or illustrates the first. For example,

I've hated the myths about bad-tempered red heads all my life; my hair is blonde. Linking it may make enforce the fact that she is NOT talking about herself. It may not, for people, but that is the idea.

I like semicolons; they offer variety. They are, I would say, however, a stylistic choice nowadays. If you have a list of complex items and some of the items are phrases that include commas, then it would be important to offer semicolons between items for comprehension.

Frankly? An awful lot of this has to do with research papers, I think. Or very formal essays. I love it that people are fluid with their punctuation, as long as it moves the understanding forward.

MAN, am I wordy. I'll stop.

Melissa Sugar said...

I used to use them and I was told I used them too much. Now I make a point of not using them. Since cutting back I have found that I don't seem to know how to properly use them anymore. Now they just scare me.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

LOL! I used to use them a lot, but I've really cut back because they don't fit in my genre. The young writer I mentor uses them all the time, incorrectly, so I had to make a hard and fast rule for her-- NO SEMI COLONS! So, yeah, I'm kind of sick of them, too. :) Now she's switched over to using a ton of colons, instead. Old habits die hard!


Liza said...

I use them sometimes, I hope correctly, when I'm trying for rhythm in my sentences and two short sentences don't sound right. I've also eliminated them when two sentences sound better. In the grand scheme, avoiding them is probably the wiser course.

Julie Musil said...

I'm with you...I avoid them! I'm always afraid I'm going to use it wrong (and I probably would)

Creepy Query Girl said...

I usually use them to connect two sentences that I really would turn into one run on- the two thoughts need to be grouped together in order to flow or imply the way I want them too so a period doesn't cut it and neither does a run on thus- the semicolon:)

Theresa Milstein said...

Semicolons can be a bit daunting, but I think I have a better hold of them. When a semicolon is needed, I can't use a comma. And I've been told I need to vary sentence length, so I don't want to be too choppy. I figure my critique partner can fix my errors. I hope.

Domey Malasarn said...

I tend to use them every once in a while. I'd guess I use 3-5 per book. I don't know if this helps you like semicolons at all, but someone in my writer's group calls them "commas with a little friend."

Lynda R Young said...

I do use them on occasion, usualy when I'm writing formal non-fiction pieces. Not so much for fiction, although one or two might slip in.

jbchicoine said...

I have to admit that ever since you jumped all over me for my semi-colons, I hardly use them at all--that said, there are times when I try to replace one with a comma or period and it simply doesn't read right--that's when I go with my gut.

Carol Kilgore said...

I don't use semicolons often, but I do every once in a while. It takes a lot for me to use one, though.

Searching for the Story said...

I must take issue with Mirriam-Webster on one thing: a semi-colon is in no way a strong comma. While a period can replace a semi-colon a comma never can.

I use and actively enjoy semi-colons. They're really helpful when you want to link two things that are independent of one another but very similar.

Melody said...

I do not use many, but I can't say I use none. The only reason I use them is when I have to statements - usually within a paragraph - that are undeniably connected. Example: "I have the wanted posters to thank for being recognized; there were more of me than of my brother." The paragraph isn't about the wanted posters, it's about her being recognized. The fact that there were more of her than her brother is important, but I would feel weird putting it in the paragraph as its own thought/sentence. The semicolon allows me to attach it to the 'being recognized' thought. I guess it's kinda like a parenthetical, expect prettier. :)