Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Semi-colons: Poor, Misunderstood Punctuation Marks

Semi-colons have been referred to as the most feared punctuation mark on earth. But just look at it, all round and cute and curly - why the terror? The fear comes in because people don't know how to use it. That's okay - I'm here to make it really simple.

A semi-colon is used to hook together two complete sentences that are closely related. For example:

Today I'm going to sleep in; playing video games all night wasn't a good idea.

Notice that we have a complete sentence before the semi-colon and another complete sentence after the semi-colon. Then notice that they are related. I played video games all night and so I'm going to sleep in - there's a cause and effect here, a definite connection.

Authors get into trouble with the semi-colon in two ways.

First, they try to stick an incomplete sentence there.

Today I'm going to sleep in; dumb video games.

"Dumb video games" isn't a complete sentence. You'd want to use an em-dash here rather than the semi-colon.

The second way to get in trouble is to hook sentences together that really aren't related.

Mark says we need to buy a new car; the kids will be home from school soon.

Okay, that was a super over-the-top example, but you get what I'm saying. If the first sentence and the second sentence aren't directly related, like a cause-and-effect thing or if the second sentence doesn't clarify or enrich the first, etc., they shouldn't be stuck together with a semi-colon.

Semi-colons were used more frequently fifty and a hundred years ago than they are now, but that doesn't mean we should never use them at all. We should use them; they're awesome. (See - like that.) But we should know how to do it correctly so we can be awesome too.


Charity West said...

Love this! Speaking as an editor, I truly rejoice when a semi-colon is used correctly. And you're so right: they are completely cute and curly. Thanks for writing this.
Though, do you think, maybe, that part of the fear of the semi-colon is that writers are afraid it's too formal? What do you think about that? Do you think they're more on the formal side? If you're trying to write something relatable, do you think the semi-colon gets in the way of that? I know I've spent long moments changing a semi-colon to an em-dash and back again. In my heart, I want that semi-colon, but then I second guess, thinking it's going to come off a little stuffy. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. :)
-Charity (cwestediting.blogspot.com)

Tristi Pinkston said...

Perhaps authors think they're old-fashioned or outdated. It is true that we see them more often in formal writing. Em dashes do fulfill the same use as a semi-colon, but em dashes can do so much more where a semi-colon is rather limited.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Really nice post that makes everything clear! I like semi-colons, but I notice they aren't used much in YA or kid-lit.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Nope - semi-colons are most usually seen in new adult or adult literature. I'm glad this post was helpful!