The Semi-Colon


ImageI was reading James Scott Bell’s Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth: Strategies and Techniques for Taking Your Fiction to the Next Level on my holiday (excellent – the only sunny week of the summer and we were in Kent!) and came across these comments:

“Do not use semi-colons. They are tranvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” – Kurt Vonnegut

“For non-fiction, essays and scholarly writing, the semi-colon does serve a purpose; I’ve used them myself. In such writing you’re often stringing lots of thoughts together for a larger purpose and the semi-colon allows you to clue the reader in on this move. But in fiction, you want each sentence to stand on its own, boldly. The semi-colon is an invitation to pause, to think twice, to look around in different directions and wonder where the heck you’e going. Do you want that? Or do you want your story to move?”

Writing Fiction for All You’re Worth (James Scott Bell)

They struck me as strange. I understand Bell’s point to some extent – the semi-colon is an invitation to pause. I teach it to students as being a connection between two related sentences; a sort of glue that indicates to the reader to pause a moment and then have some linked point or explanation given to them. And I have to teach it because it’s a key piece of punctuation and it’s specifically mentioned on the GCSE English Language syllabus – students get marks for using it, and colons, effectively. So they have to use it. Why the semi-colon in particular, I’m not sure – and not sure that it should be required so specifically rather than the vaguer ‘accurate and imaginative use of ambitious punctuation’ which would require a bit more ingenuity, and a bit more inventiveness to use. Like Michael Rosen says – Semi-colons, semi-colonists, anti-semi-colonists – you can quite happily get by in life without it, but there’s no reasons to either elevate it or reject it entirely.

But the idea that you shouldn’t use it because it invites a pause made me, well, pause! I guess the point really is that you should use it when it’s needed or adds to the tone you want to get across. It’s not, as Vonnegut (above) and an Independent article suggested, a way to show yourself to be educated:

In English, there are not such tightly formed rules about the use of punctuation as there are in most European languages. A writer who uses the semi-colon well and expressively singles himself out as a skilful and accomplished craftsman.

Or at least, it shouldn’t be, GCSE exams aside. A semi-colon adds colour, adds information and detail. Sure, you can write these as simple, separate sentences. But that doesn’t automatically speed up the writing. Short sentences can speed or slow as you wish, depending on the words you’ve chosen to include. A series of short sentences with sibilance (a repeated ‘s’ sound) would likely sound faster than one with an alliterative ‘pr’ – the former is easier to say, and because it lacks the percussive nature of the ‘pr’ would feel quicker. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. When you want a lengthy, languid description, a semi-colon here and there would be useful:

” Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Bleak House (Penguin Classics)
Charles Dickens (1852-53)

Dickens has a real variety – the short sentence ‘fog everywhere’ could be enough in a thriller or action novel. But here, we want the description so that you really feel what it’s like to be inside that fog – and so he explores it further. If there weren’t semi-colons, you’d likely end up with something far more separated – it wouldn’t have that rolling quality that echoes the very movement of the fog itself. Of course, that’s a completely different tone to that which Bell is going for.

Looking online, the first use of a semi-colon in printing seems to have been around 1494, according to Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. More recently, news articles are questioning whether the use of emoticons has killed the semi-colon. It seems to be something which riles people up – prescriptivists arguing that you should keep the semi-colon as being twice the pause of a comma, and those who say it should be banned entirely because it’s useless and people can’t use it well.

Oatmeal comic on how to use a semi-colon


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s