Writing Tip Tuesday: Semi-Colons

I have a question for your blog. If this has been answered before, then just ignore it. If not:

How do you feel about the use of semi-colons in fiction, and how and when do you think they should be used?

Personally, I love semi-colons. They are so cute! (I could have sworn I'd talked about them before but couldn't find it using the Search feature...)

I hate reading about semi-colons (and other grammatical stuff) because it's so darn boring! And confusing. (Unless you're a word nerd.) So I'll try to make this easy.

The most general and widely applicable rule for semi-colons is: Use a semi-colon when you need a pause that's stronger than a comma, but not as strong as a period.

The second rule for semi-colons is: Don't use so many that they distract the reader with their cuteness.

There are a few other rules, too. Use a semi-colon when:

  1. Connecting two independent clauses (phrases that could be stand alone sentences) into one long sentence, without using a conjunction. (This is the most common usage, and IMHO, the only way it should be used in fiction.)

    Example: I looked into the vampire's cold, black eyes; I was doomed.

  2. Connecting two independent clauses into one long sentence, while using a conjunction. This is only done when one or both of the independent clauses is really long or uses a lot of commas. (Most of the time, IMHO, it's better to go ahead and make it two sentences.)

    Example: The vampire loved the flavor of types A-positive, B-positive, and O-positive blood; but AB-negative always gave him a stomach ache.

  3. When a sentence contains a long and wordy list. (Use this only in non-fiction, scholarly works. It's just too cumbersome in fiction.) (It's also telling, not showing.)

    Example: The vampire had lived under many identities during his six hundred plus years—a farmer in the 1600s, a lesser prince in the 1700s, a ship's captain in the 1800s, a merchant marine in the early 1900s; most recently, he was posing as a dot com millionaire and that suited him just fine.

There are a few other times when using a semi-colon is acceptable, but they're awkward and I don't recommend using them that way in fiction. If you really want to know ALL the details of the semi-colon, do some research; look it up on Google.


Rebecca Irvine said...

Now I am wishing I had AB negative blood; that seems ideal.

brenda said...

Thanks for clearing that up so simply. (I thought your example sentences were sooo funny)!

Annette Lyon said...

Great explanation!

Note that LDSP said to use a semicolon with INDEPENDENT CLAUSES.

The most common misuse I see with them in my freelance editing work is when someone wants a pause that's longer than a comma so they throw in a semicolon--but the two sides aren't independent clauses.


(Your friendly neighborhood word nerd. Yes, I use semicolons in my fiction. They're cute.)

mormonhermitmom said...

Well, it's a good thing you posted this because I thought semicolons were for sentences with an incomplete phrase in it. Phew.

I hate it when blood makes me sick to my stomach. ;)

Elizabeth Morgan said...

Sounds like something i would have a hard time following the rules with. Grammer is not my thing.

Chris said...

Thanks for the clarification! I too have been unsure how to use them properly. Next time Word subs a comma for a semi-colon, I'll accept the change.

Joyce DiPastena said...

Thank you for posting this! I've often wondered myself about this very question.

onelowerlight said...

Not to be contrary, but in college writing courses, I was taught that it is incorrect to use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). Instead, I was taught to use a comma with those, and a semicolon with basically anything else (however, moreover, etc). So, for example, if a student came to the writing lab where I used to work with your second example sentence, I would have struck out the semicolon and put in a comma instead. Is this correct, or do you have access to some fount of wisdom that transcends my academic training (I learned this in a poli sci class, btw, not an English class)?

LDS_Publisher said...

You make a good point and yes, it's better to use a comma with the conjunction most of the time. Using the semi-colon with a coordinating conjunction is not my preferred method (see note on making it two sentences).

My example is technically correct due to the number of commas before the semi-colon. The semi-colon provides a more obvious break between the two parts of the sentence. It is used this way to provide clarity and avoid confusion.