On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

From The Millions:

Kurt Vonnegut’s caution against the use of semicolons is one of the most famous and canonical pieces of writing advice, an admonition that has become, so to speak, one of The Rules. More on these rules later, but first the infamous quote in question: “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.”

. . . .

My best guess is that he means semicolons perform no function that could not be performed by other punctuation, namely commas and periods. This obviously isn’t true—semicolons, like most punctuation, increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal. Inasmuch as it’s strictly true that you can make do with commas, the same argument that could be made of commas themselves in favor of the even unfussier ur-mark, the period.

. . . .

Finally, regarding the college part, two things: First, semicolon usage seems like an exceedingly low bar to set for pretentiousness. What else might have demonstrated elitism in Vonnegut’s mind?

. . . .

But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase the band War, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?

As we know, semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction. I personally tend to use em dashes in many of these spots, but only when there is some degree of causality, with the clause after the em typically elaborating in some way on the clause before it . . . . Semicolons are useful when two thoughts are related, independent yet interdependent, and more or less equally weighted. They could exist as discrete sentences, and yet something would be lost if they were, an important cognitive rhythm.

. . . .

Consider Jane Austen’s lavish use of the semicolon in this, the magnificent opening sentence of Persuasion:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Periods could be ably used here, but they would not quite capture the drone of Elliot’s stultifying vanity.

. . . .

The semicolon’s high water usage mark . . . was the mid-18th to mid-/late 19th centuries. This is hardly surprising, given the style of writing during this era: long, elaborately filigreed sentences in a stylistic tradition that runs from Jonathan Swift to the James brothers, a style that can feel needlessly ornate to modern readers. Among other virtues (or demerits, depending on your taste in prose), semicolons are useful for keeping a sentence going. Reflecting on the meaning of whiteness in Moby Dick, Melville keeps the balls in the air for 467 words; Proust manages 958 in Volume 4 of Remembrance of Things Past.

Link to the rest at The Millions

PG will add that he sees semicolons most frequently in the writings of attorneys including, most notably, those attorneys who are tasked with the writing of laws and statutes.

Unless you are seeking reviews that begin with, “This book put me in mind of the 1978 edition of the Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri,” PG suggests; having; little; to; do; with; semicolons;;;.

29 thoughts on “On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing”

  1. Semicolons are required when writing complex sentences that have clauses with subordinate clauses.

    That’s me. That’s the way I write, and the way I write fiction, and I mean every one.

    I don’t abuse grammar, but grammar is handy for helping the brain parse the words that are coming into it, and it’s not that hard, people!

    I use a range from one-word sentences to whole-paragraph sentences – as necessary. Without semicolons, you lose one of the pacing devices provided by English, and many writers end up with run-on sentences which make no sense unless you accidentally include the right pieces with each other when you read it.

    The Rule should be: learn to use your tools and craft, and don’t go playing in deep water unless you know what you’re doing there. You’re giving the rest of us a bad name.

    Don’t want to use semicolons? Don’t.

    • +1! I love semicolons. I don’t care about “fashion” in literature. They’re part of my style, and I do so appreciate them when I see them used well in something I’m reading.

      Now, if only people would stop using comma splices. Le sigh.

      • Comma splices drive me crazy. They are used incorrectly most of the time, and slow me down because I have to figure out why disparate things are connected by commas.

        While we’re at it, someone has decided that since commas are hard to generate on phones (I can only imagine), it is okay to not separate names from sentences, so we end up with the gruesome “Lets eat Ann” constructions.

        • Eh? My cell phone, although I call it a “stupid phone” has the comma and period right there on the default alpha keyboard, flanking the space bar. No harder than any other character to generate (no easier, either, given my fat fingers…)

          Maybe because it’s one of those cheapo ZTE phones? (Note, I am not in the military, or any government position; I also do not use it for any “secured” activity – so I don’t care about the reported security holes.)

          Note the independent but closely related bits of information in the parenthetical… THANK YOU!

          Punctuation does not kill comprehension, bad writers do.

    • Concur times a zillion.

      All the elements provided by the language are meant to serve a purpose.
      Let them.

      Cultivate your own voice and style. If it means trampling “oficial” writing rules, so be it.

    • Same. I was prepared to throw down when an editor at my old job was telling an apprentice that, “We don’t use semicolons.”

      I whirled in my seat to face her. “We have a thing against semicolons?”

      “In headlines! In headlines only, of course.”

      I paused and tried to imagine using them in headlines. “Yeah that makes sense.”

      So don’t use semicolons in titles. But elsewhere? The OP is out of his everlovin’ mind.

    • Same. I was prepared to throw down when an editor at my old job was telling an apprentice that “We don’t use semicolons.”

      I whirled in my seat to face her. “We have a thing against semicolons?”

      “In headlines! In headlines only, of course.”

      I paused and tried to imagine using them in headlines. “Yeah that makes sense.”

      So don’t use semicolons in titles. But elsewhere? The OP is out of his everlovin’ mind.

  2. Semicolons are currently out of fashion for fiction. This does not mean they should not be used, but that they should only be used with specific intent. This is in the same way that bustles are out of fashion. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear one if you wish to, but you have to expect a reaction should you walk down the street so attired.

  3. {sarcasm} Or one could always use semicolons if one desires to show that one is less, umm, full of it than those who misuse colons for anything except the introduction of a list or a grammatically independent clause that shares a common subject. Or digestion. (Those who’ve had intestinal resections are also entitled to full use of the semicolon, since they do so by necessity.) {/sarcasm}

    All seriousness aside, Vonnegut’s out-of-context statement is part of yet another hyperbolic rant against misuse of stylistic devices to seem more clever than the underlying material. It’s another Grundyism, similar to the purported prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition, a “crime” up with which I will not put; an unstated criticism of Dickens, a much-admired-by-teachers writers who obviously was paid by the word; an unstated criticism that sixth-grade baseline grammatical defaults do not good writing make; yet another imprecation similar to Twain’s monolingual lament concerning placement of the verb, which for some of us whose first language is not English ends up naturally at the end of the sentence where it belongs.

  4. I tend to use semicolons more when I’ve been reading Victorian magazines, since even the fashion columns are littered with them.

    I am careful to use them only if the POV character might use them. I have one who does; all the others prefer shorter, declarative sentences.

  5. I love semicolons. I don’t care if they’re not in fashion; I don’t care if they’re some writer’s pet peeve which he has pompously elevated to the status of a Rule which all writers ‘must’ follow. If I feel like putting a semicolon in my writing, I’m doing it, fashion and the ridiculous peeves of people like Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut be damned.

  6. Anyone who uses much older writers as the reason to use semicolons knows nothing about the history of narrative style. It changes constantly because the audiences have changed. Many readers would feel like they are trudging through molasses trying to read someone who writes like Jane Austen if they bothered to go more than a page into the work. Here’s the answer I gave to one of my blog readers who asked about why authors shouldn’t use a semicolon.

    First, a grammar reminder about semicolons (;). The three most common uses of a semicolon are

    *Compound sentences when a conjunction (and, or, but) isn’t used.

    The wind blew through the trees; the chimes sang like angels.

    *Compound sentences when a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, nevertheless) is used.

    The wind blew through the trees; however, the chimes remained silent.

    *Sentences with long, joined clauses which may have commas.

    The wind blew through the trees, I was told; but because the chimes had become tangled, their sounds did not echo through the forest.

    As you can see from the examples, most semicolon sentence structures have a formal quality to them that is uncommon in fiction but is often found in nonfiction. In other words, it belongs in nonfiction, not fiction, particularly genre fiction with its more vernacular style.

    Use the semicolon as rarely as you would an exclamation point in narrative, and only when nothing else will do for clarity.

    If you find yourself using semicolons quite often, your narrative voice is probably too heavy or didactic for popular fiction.

    • I happen to really like exclamation points, and I use them in my fiction a whole lot more often than I use semicolons, even though I do use those too.

      I also use dashes—probably too often!

      People who don’t like it don’t have to read it; their punctuation prejudices aren’t mine.

      And there do seem to be enough readers who don’t care one way or the other. The books sell and the bills stay paid!

      • Exclamation points only work in narrative if your viewpoint character is a tween girl or a golden retriever. Ball! Squirrel! Nap! Food! Otherwise, it becomes silly.

          • I tend to tell my students that exclamation points only belong in a fiction piece if your character says something on the order of “Julio, don’t step in front of that truck!” Otherwise I claim to charge $0.25 per exclamation point.

            No, I’ve never collected.

            • Just another rule I happily ignore. As far as I’m concerned these style rules about semicolons and exclamation marks are bunk. If it works in context, it works.

    • It isn’t so much that the audiences have changed; it’s the fashions among writers that have changed. (There you go, a semicolon that you can’t do without.)

      Not every work of fiction needs to read like a breezy little article from an in-flight magazine. Genre fiction in particular has the liberty to take advantage of the extraordinarily wide range of styles and tones available in written English. My own two favourite genres are historical fiction and fantasy, and when I see someone deliberately trying to write those without any formal usages, I feel rather as if someone had served me a sausage without salt.

      Saying that no fiction should ever contain a semicolon is as silly as saying that no painting should ever contain brown.

      • A didactic tone might even be appropriate for alien or AI characters or snotty condescending types that overgeneralize. Upper crust snobs, for example.

        All writing rules can be broken to good effect. The trick is to know *when* to break them.

        Writers who religiously follow all received wisdom risk ending up writing with a generic narrative voice; it will sell to tradpub editors but make them less distinctive to readers.

        • If I can’t tell authors apart by the way they write, I might as well be reading anybody. You don’t become someone’s favorite author that way, that’s for sure.

  7. After editing an MS that was choked with semi-colons and wondering why, I discovered that Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker tends to suggest a semi-colon for every punctuation/grammar glitch, plus semi-colons for breakfast and as a solution to world peace.
    Not to be trusted…

  8. I give a serious side-eye to anyone who states an absolute rule that any established part of the English language should *never* be used by writers who are communicating in English. It’s pure nonsense.

    Semicolons are one of those things to be used sparingly because they do tend to stick out, but sparingly does not mean never.

    Meanwhile, I continue to hope for the day when we can use interrobangs in novels. The interrobang is a very useful mark that could serve us very well in fiction. Sadly, the fact that so few people understand that it exists and is an actual punctuation mark means that we can’t use it unless we want our readers to be instantly jerked out of the story.

  9. Semicolons have a place in legal, scientific, and academic writing, but my experience tells me that 90% of readers don’t understand them and 90% of writers (especially fiction writers) don’t know how to used them correctly. Just because it’s in your toolbox doesn’t mean you have to use it.

  10. Semicolons are horribly mis-named. Their usage is quite different from a colon.

    They should better be called “super commas” because that’s what they are and that’s how they’re used.

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