03 October 2020

A Semifinal Word on Semicolons


Semicolonoscopy [sim-i-co-lun-OS-cah-pee] – An examination to detect abnormalities in the use of a certain mark of punctuation.

A popular topic recently at one of the writers' forums (fori?) was semicolons--their use, their overuse, etc. Should fiction writers even include them at all? 

I think it's interesting that some of my writer friends are banner-waving fans of semicolons, while others say they should be used occasionally but sparingly, and still others avoid them like Kryptonite. And that last group seems to be growing. Many talented writers feel that semicolons should never be used because a period can always do a better job. Kurt Vonnegut once said, of semicolons, "All they do is show you've been to college"--and in her Huffpost US article "Semicolons: How to Use Them and Why You Should," Claire Fallon said, "The semicolon has come to be seen as the gall bladder of punctuation marks: It theoretically serves some sort of purpose, but if it were removed entirely, everything would probably be fine."

My opinion, for what (little) it's worth . . .

I think semicolons, troublesome as they are, should remain a part of your writer's toolbox. Even if you're a fiction writer. But I also think they should be stored in one of the back compartments, along with exclamation points, and I agree that their overuse can make you an embarrassment to friends and family.

So when and why, if ever, should you use a semicolon? I can think of only three reasons, the first two of which are good ones.

1. Use a semicolon to separate phrases in a list that contains commas.

Example: Our Zoom session included writers from Athens, Georgia; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Ruston, Louisiana.

2. Use a semicolon when two complete sentences are too closely related to be separated by a period. And some of them are. (To paraphrase something I saw at the blog Legible awhile back, "A period says, 'Full stop. New idea.' A semicolon says, 'Pause; related idea.'")

Example: "The editor says she loves short stores; they're addictive."

Sure, you could use a period instead--but here I think it would provide too much separation, and too much of a pause.

3. Use a semicolon before a connecting word like therefore, otherwise, instead, or however.

Example: I might as well write this column; otherwise, I'd have to mow the lawn.

I can't recall ever using a semicolon this third way, just as I wouldn't use one before a conjunction like and or but, which is also acceptable in certain situations. I would just reword the sentence to avoid needing the semicolon.

A recent example of semicolonization

Here's something that came up just last week, in a mystery story I finished writing yesterday. The following is a paragraph near the beginning of the story:

The old woman was inching toward him through the trees and undergrowth along the creekbank, her back stooped and her eyes on the water. On her head was a blue baseball cap with a gray ponytail sticking out the hole in the back; in her hands was a pump shotgun. Just as Jabbo was trying to decide whether to hide or run, she raised her head and looked straight at him.

As you can see, I chose (after some hemming and hawing) to use a semicolon in that middle sentence. I realize a period could've been used, but--again--I thought there was too close a connection there, and that a period would've created too much of a "pause." A semicolon just felt right, and gave not just the sentence but the whole paragraph the rhythm I thought it needed. Feel free to disagree. (Hey, I haven't sent the story anyplace yet, so if enough folks do disagree, I might throw pride out the window and change it.)

A disadvantage for fiction writers

I think one of the semicolon's biggest problems is that it can make your writing appear too formal. If you're going for formal, fine, but most of my fiction writing is informal, and the last thing I want to do is have it look stiff or stilted. I certainly don't like to use more than one semicolon every couple of pages. And I never use a semicolon in dialogue. When I see that in my reading, it snaps me out of the story. It just doesn't look or feel right. 

A quick example, here. I just finished re-reading William Goldman's The Princess Bride, and at one point Buttercup's father sees something through the window and says to her mother, "Look!" Irritated and busy with something else, the mother replies, "You look; you know how."

I understand that it's an ideal place for a semicolon, because (as I keep saying) those are two complete sentences too closely related to be separated by a period. To say "You look. You know how." sounds clunky to me, and risks losing the scolding snippiness of the reply. And even though a grammatically incorrect comma sometimes works for this kind of thing (especially in dialogue), I don't think it would, here. The reply "You look, you know how." doesn't feel right, and might even be misunderstood. So the semicolon works. But . . . if I were writing something like that today, instead of fifty years ago when Goldman wrote it, I think I might substitute an em-dash, which it's hard to misuse anyhow. The result would be "You look--you know how." Which might solve the impression-of-formality problem.

The result of that particular semicolonoscopy is obviously a matter of opinion. I'm not even sure about it my ownself. John Sandford, one of my favorite authors, has used a lot of semicolons in dialogue in his Lucas Davenport novels, and colons too, but--for some reason--they don't seem to bother me. (Hey, if you're good enough at what you do, you can get away with a lot.)

The road to Damascus

When I started writing fiction for publication 26 years ago (boy does the time fly) I was guilty of using far too many semicolons, and commas too. I thought there was no end to the clarification those marks of punctuation could provide. I can still get carried away with commas at times, but otherwise I have (hallelujah) seen the light. I've cut way back on semicolons, and exclamation points as well. I probably still use too many dashes and too many parentheses, but we all have our vices. I think one reason I enjoy using dashes and parentheses is that I like to interject "asides" into sentences, when I write and when I speak. But that's another matter, and a discussion for another day.

Sometimes my use of semicolons depends on the project. One of my writer friends for whom I have great respect is also an occasional editor of anthologies, and he's not fond of semicolons. So when I submit a story to him, I make sure there are no semicolons to be found. It's not hard. As I mentioned earlier, the way to avoid or remove semicolons is to construct or reword sentences such that they're just not required.

What's your opinion? Use them whenever you like? Use them in moderation? Weed them out entirely?

In summary …

I plan to continue to use semicolons, annoying or not, when I feel they're needed. I'll treat them like bacon, or Hostess Twinkies, or real ice cream--they're not part of my regular diet, but now and then they just hit the spot.

I'll close on a profoundly serious note, with something from my latest effort, a book of 300 short poems called Lighten Up a Little:

When edited, writers have said
Semicolons are something they dread;
What if someone had stolen 
One half of your colon
And plugged in a comma instead?

Sounds painful, right?

See you in two weeks.


  1. In both examples, I read right through the passage without my mind’s eye flagging the semicolons. I had to go back and peer, word for word, to catch them. The examples seem natural, so I vote to go for it. You got it right.

    The John Floyd 12-Step Program helped me cut back on commas. I rarely use semicolons and I like to think the exceptions are those you point out. Parentheses I don’t use at all in fiction.

    On a semi-related note, I’ve seen weird examples in self-published novels of ellipses– either extreme overuse or the opposite… No. Ellipses. Where. They. Should. Be. Used, instead of periods/fullstops.

    What would C/Java programmers do without semicolons? (We know the answer to that.)

  2. Leigh, I agree--when semicolons are used correctly they aren't even noticed, which is the way it should be.

    As for ellipses, I've tried to cut back on those too, reserving them for hesitations and for trailing-off (not interrupted) speech. Overuse of any mark of punctuation is something I try to avoid. But I confess I love parentheses (as you can see)--and commas too.

    Punctuation in programming is a whole nother deal, isn't it. I think that background influences you AND me in the way we do certain things in our writing. (Is that good or bad . . . ?)

  3. I'm glad to see someone else stand up for the semicolon!

  4. I've recently changed preference from semi-colons to dashes because I feel the latter is more dynamic in fiction. That said, there are still situations in which the semi-colon just seems to fit in well. I agree with you regarding ellipses; they're best reserved for hesitation and letting a sentence (speech, generally) trail off.

  5. Hi Janice. Yep, it doesn't get much respect anymore. Seriously, a lot of writers have told me they just don't just semicolons, period (pun intended). But it's also true that I try not to use it in fiction as much as I once did, because it really can make writing appear more "formal."

    I guess the big difference is, for me, I once used semicolons without even thinking twice, and now I give it pretty careful consideration, first. It's a crazy issue.

  6. Cameron, I only just saw your comment--thanks! Yes, I do find myself using dashes more than I used to, and often in place of semicolons. And I agree that we shouldn't just dump all semicolons overboard. As you said, sometimes they fit perfectly.

    Another mistake I used to make a lot is using ellipses for interrupted speech, and then found (mostly through reading) that a dash is much better for that.

    Discussions about punctuation (and grammar, and anything involving style) are always interesting to me.

  7. I use dashes a lot, and occasionally semi-colons, and I am trying to break myself of the habit of ellipses...

  8. For fiction, I'm in the Kryptonite camp. I'll endorse your reason #1, the list that includes commas, but not for my fiction. For others, okay.

    Forum is neuter, as opposed to masculine or feminine, so the plural is fora, properly. Which looks funny. So a lot of people use forums. I suppose you could have used semicolons in this here paragraph if you were so inclined.

  9. Eve, one of the many frustrating things about ellipses is that (at least using my word program) each dot counts as a separate word (!). So if you're overly fond of ellipses, the wordcount of a story can seem a lot higher than it really is.

    And I don't know what I'd do without dashes.

    As for semicolons, I've heard editors say they simply can't believe how often semicolons are MISused. So maybe if we just use them as intended, they're okay . . .

  10. Ah, Kaye, you are one of the unbelievers! You and my buddy Josh Pachter (among others). I see your point, I really do--but even with fiction, I think the good ole semicolon is sometimes needed. I do get embarrassed, though, to look back at some of my long-ago published stories, and man I used a LOT of semicolons in those things. Way too many.

    We need to do a forum on folks who like fora, to provide a forum for 'em.

    1. A forum for 'em--thanks for cracking me up this morning.

  11. Hey, I still have trouble with alumna, alumnus, and alumni.

  12. Very timely. I just looked at my WIP and had 9 semicolons; there are now 2. And that may be 1 too many.

  13. Hey Tom. Not necessarily--but I think it's probably good that you gave all of them a second look.

    I'm finding, more and more in my writing (fic and nonfic) that I could often just as easily have used a dash or a period or (with rewording) a comma. I just never realized, until a few years ago, that so many editors feel we use too many semicolons, and God help us if we use one the wrong way. In judging fiction-writing contests I've seen semicolons used flat-out wrong, and sometimes it seemed they were used just so the author could inject a semicolon, which is certainly wrong thinking, and as bad as using a too-long word instead of an appropriate short one.

    I believe it'll always be one of those marks of punctuation that prompts questions and discussion and disagreement.

    Thanks so much for commenting!

  14. As John notes in his response to Kaye George — hi, both of y'all! — the only place I use semicolons is in winky-face emojis. ;-)

    Sure, they can be used to serve a semivaluable function, but the problem, IMHO, is that yer average reader doesn't know how to read them. The Sleuthsayers and Sleuthreaders are way above average and do know how to read them, but you all are exceptional.

    Part of the non-poet's job, I think, is to make the reader's job easier, not harder, and semicolons make the average reader's job harder, not easier.


  15. HA! Josh, I forgot about winks in emojis. Yep, gotta have 'em for that!

    As for readers not understanding semicolons, we probably have to agree to disagree. I reluctantly admit that the IQ of the general public might be less that one might expect--just look at behavior during the pandemic for proof of that--but I would hope the occasional semicolon wouldn't make something hard to read. But (heaven forbid!) I could be wrong.

    I predict that one of these days you'll be writing something and will discover that you wish you hadn't thrown that box of semicolons out of your writing toolbox, and will wind up looking around for it. If that ever happens, promise you'll let me know! (Meanwhile, keep writing those great stories of yours, old friend--you've taught me a lot over the years.)

    1. You are gracious as always, John. In an email I wrote to one of our colleagues recently, I compared you to my dear old friend Bill Brittain. The two of you, I said, are crime fiction's two great gentlemen; I meant it.....

    2. You are too kind. Thank you, Josh. I remember Bill Brittain's many stories in EQ and AH, and I appreciate even being mentioned in the same paragraph with him.

      And remember, I have plenty of semicolons lying around if ever you decide to start using them again . . .

  16. I would argue that her holding a pump shotgun is a show stopper. Attached to another sentence by a semicolon, however, dilutes its impact. It needs to stand alone. In general, I'm not a fan of semicolons in fiction, with rare exceptions. This is not one of them. Regardless, I'm curious what's going to happen next.

  17. Hi Bruce. Looks like the anti-semicolon army has enlisted plenty of my friends! Could be you're right there--I will rethink that sentence. (Notice I used a dash instead of a semicolon there.)

    As for what happens next, there are loan sharks, gambling addicts, and alligators involved, and the shotgun comes in handy. I have more fun than anyone should be allowed to have, writing these stories.

    Thanks again for the feedback!

  18. I am a semicolon agnostic. I can't say that I use them much, but I don't get the vapors if I come across one.

    As for an ellipsis being counted as three words, do not use periods; insert an ellipsis as a character instead.…It will be counted as one word.

  19. Hi Paula! Maybe that's me too, at least recently: I don't use them much but it doesn't worry me when I see them in the wild.

    As for ellipses, I could indeed insert them as a character, but I like the "look" of three periods (four if it's the end of a sentence) with one space between each. (. . . instead of ...) Just a quirk, I know, but I like to do it that way. As Josh said, YMMV.

    Thanks for stopping in at SleuthSayers!

  20. John, Thanks for "semicolonoscopy," the definition, and one of the best clean limericks ever. I use semicolons very infrequently, almost always to separate items with internal commas in a series. For parenthetical comments, I use dashes rather than parentheses these days. Almost as many people dislike parentheses as do semicolons. And in the hey, wait a minute department, did Josh Pachter accuse poets of writing so as to make the reader's job harder? Josh, you're reading the wrong poets!

  21. Liz, I too use more dashes than parentheses, and especially when writing fiction. When used for "asides" and interruptions of the main flow of the sentence, I think parentheses are sort of a less formal set of dashes.

    Matter of fact, Josh DID make that accusation, didn't he?--which doesn't bother me a bit, because I don't understand a lot of contemporary poetry anyway.

    I better stop before I start spewing more limericks. Thanks for the comment!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>