Semicolons: For Cadence and Showing Connection

March 18, 2018 — 2 Comments

Readers AskQUESTION: Popular writer, Mr. [Name Removed], insists that fiction writers should never use semicolons. What’s wrong with using semicolons?

ANSWER: Semicolons in fiction aren’t taboo. The idea of banning a punctuation mark in fiction is patently ridiculous. Ask popular fiction writer Jojo Moyes. The first line of her book Still Me contains a semicolon (and lots of other punctuation marks):

It was the mustache that reminded me I was no longer in England: a solid, grey millipede firmly obscuring the man’s upper lip; a Village People mustache, a cowboy mustache, the miniature head of a broom that meant business.

Jojo Moyes isn’t the only great writer to use semicolons, and no competent writer should eliminate them. To tell a writer not to use a semicolon would be  like telling a painter not to use the color blue. Semicolons are an integral part of a writer’s toolbox. While some writing teachers advise beginning writers not to use semicolons, this advice does not apply to seasoned writers. A wise mother would not give a toddler a serrated knife, but that doesn’t mean she would carve a steak with a table knife. Semicolons should never be used randomly; however, there are times when only a semicolon will do.

Just as great musicians realize that people have eyes as well as ears and often choreograph their performances, great writers know that writing is more than printed words on a page. Because I have a musical background, I like to think about the way words sound when I read them aloud. So much meaning can be conveyed with punctuation. In music, a composer has to have a way to tell the musician how quickly a particular passage should be played, from Larghissimo (very, very slow) to Prestissimo (200 bpm and over). There are also ways for a composer to tell musicians to hold a certain note a little longer. Likewise, writers have different ways of punctuating sentences to control the flow.

In Keys to Great Writing: Mastering the Elements of Composition and Revision, Stephen Wilbers writes:

It [the semicolon] creates a pause shorter than the period, slightly shorter than the colon, and longer than the comma. To eliminate it entirely from your repertoire is to limit your range as a writer.

A semicolon is used to join to phrases in a way that suggests a connection. For example, consider the following:

Owning a violin is one thing; playing it is another.

“You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” — Charles W. Kingsfield Jr., The Paper Chase

“Every person in this house almost flunked out of law school in their first year. It’s not hard to see why; they had broads on the brain.” — William Moss, Tutor, The Paper Chase

In each of the examples above, the independent clause immediately following each semicolon is related to the independent clause preceding the semicolon. The semicolon separates, but it still implies a link.

Look again at the first example:

Owning a violin is one thing; playing it is another.

Now look at some other ways to punctuate the same example:

Owning a violin is one thing, but playing it is another.

Owning a violin is one thing. Playing it is another.

Owning a violin is one thing—playing it is another.

Punctuation allows experienced writers to control the cadence and flow of their writing. Eliminating semicolons would prevent writers from having a full artistic range of expression. Remember the snippet of dialogue from the movie Amadeus:

Emperor Joseph II: My dear young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

The thought of removing notes from Mozart’s compositions would make any musician cringe—just as I’d cringe if Jojo Moyes removed the semicolon from the opening line of her book Still Me.

There are no absolutes in writing. As Annie Proulx, who once won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, said:

You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

WriteSomethingYouLove.com

2 responses to Semicolons: For Cadence and Showing Connection

  1. 
    Pamela McCord May 14, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    Love this post. I also was advised by an editor to never use semicolons. She seemed to think that readers weren’t bright enough to know what they were for. Sometimes, you really need a semicolon!

    Like

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