when to use a semicolon

One of the features of reading through slush is to be faced with writers’ blatant disregard for punctuation. Really, dudes, want to make a good impression? Learn to punctuate properly, with special attention to dialogue, and special attention to semicolons. I don’t know. What is it with semicolons that makes writers fall in love with them, load them into a blunderbuss and fire them at random at their manuscripts? Does it make them feel learned? Do they think readers will sit up and take notice and think: aha! This writer uses the nebulous punctuation device that is the semicolon, and that neither of us understands, and thus writer must be good? As I said, I don’t know, but the poor semicolon is much-abused, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness.

So here are two simple truths about semicolons, and they are all you need to know about them:

The best and most fail-safe way to use a semicolon is…

not at all.

That’s right. Written language doesn’t need semicolons. At all. So if you’re unsure of their use, just don’t use them. Simple. And, by the way, semicolon-peppered manuscripts are very -uhm – amateurish anyway, so just ease off on them, right? No more than 2 per chapter/story is probably a good guideline.

… if you are determined to have semicolons, here’s another easy rule: a semicolon is interchangeable with a full stop, and NOT with a comma. Also easy to remember. If, however, you are of the variety unsure about the placement of full stops vs commas, then, well, maybe you just need to brush up on punctuation in general, and it’s probably best to forget about the semicolon altogether. You don’t need it, and if your punctuation skills are not the best, chances are that the humble semicolon will just get you into a whole lot of unnecessary trouble.


8 comments on “when to use a semicolon

  1. I’ll ditto that. I used to love the little critters but got too many complaints to continue using them. A lot of people don’t like reading them even when they are in their right places.

    • In your post this morning, you touched on the essence of semicolons: if there is a Higher Order In Punctuation, semicolons are it. I have nothing against semicolons per se, but the truth is that so many people don’t seem to have the faintest clue how to use them. To those people, I say: please, don’t. They’re not strictly necessary.

  2. I agree – there is rarely a place for the semi-colon in fiction. I’m perplexed as to why new writers want to use it at all, let alone so often.

    • that is what an editor should do. The humble semicolon is one of those things that becomes totally hideous when over-used. You just don’t need them, ever, at all. But if a writer chooses to use them, they should be used correctly

      • I started this argument over there at (a forum that shall not be named) and got cut down by people who said that the semi-colon was vital to writing.

        I said, sure it had its place, but really it wasn’t needed in FICTION writing…and well, that was that. I got hate mail.

        Oh well. Time to write a fight scene 🙂

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