Friday, 6 September 2013

The Supposedly Elusive Semicolon

If you’ve got more than five semicolons in your opening chapter, I can guarantee you are using them wrong. No need to worry though. Delete all of them. Yes, all. Then put back in the four or five that were actually needed (and that’s per book, not chapter).

Here’s a quick test for you. Do you know which of these needs a semicolon?
1) I ran to the door; keys in my hand.
2) I ran to the door; keys jingling as I went.
3) I ran to the door; I didn’t want anyone else to answer it.
4) I ran to the door; I answered it.

Sentences 1 and 2 should have commas instead. Semicolons are used to join two completed sentences. If either of your sentences can’t stand alone as an independent sentence, then you shouldn’t use a semicolon.

Sentence 4 is wrong for an entirely different reason. Semicolons can make a writer feel powerful. We think we’re being exciting and dramatic; readers think we’re pretentious. If nothing is implied, then nothing is added by having the punctuation there.

Once using them correctly, try not to use them at all. Any more than four per chapter stands out like a coke bottle on a lemonade shelf. The only time you should use one is when removing it changes the meaning of the sentence.

The dog ran. He was hungry. // The dog ran; he was hungry.

The first doesn’t necessarily imply that the reason the dog ran was due to his hunger. Well it does a little bit because of the proximity, but using a semicolon gets rid of any uncertainty you may hold about the dog’s motives. The second uses a structure that implies more of a link. The second means the dog ran because he was hungry, and it’s written in a quick, straightforward way.

4) I ran to the door; I answered it.

You probably shouldn’t use a semicolon here as there’s nothing extra being implied.

You might throw one in to sound more dramatic, but it’s a bit like someone going ‘Dun Dun DUHHHHHN!’ behind you as you read. It’s melodramatic, unnecessary – tempting – but shows that you don’t really understand what the punctuation is for.

Punctuation isn’t a device for when you want to sound dramatic. Often a dramatic line will have so much weight that punctuation only softens it.

So if you're a semicolon lover, try to avoid using too many. The only time you should use them is when the sentence corners you and puts a gun to your head – metaphorically of course.

Cheers for reading!