1. marcusl
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    marcusl Member

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    Do you use the semicolon often?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by marcusl, Oct 24, 2009.

    It seems that when two clauses have a strong relation with each other, writers sometimes link them using a semicolon. However, it's also acceptable to use a full stop and separate them into two sentences, right? So, why use the semicolon and risk making a potential grammatical mistake? I'd love to learn more about this. Thanks very much.
     
  2. Mark R
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    Mark R Member

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    I used to use semicolons all the time. Almost every other chapter had one. I thought it was a clever way to do things.

    Then I read a few things on this forum, and went back and got rid of them all. My writing reads a lot better without them. From what I've learned, there's pretty much always a better way to write the sentence.

    So, to answer your question. Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't risk using it. Not just because of grammar, but because it generally reads better without a semicolon.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Semicolons are generally a poor choice in fiction. Either separate your senteces with a full stop, or join them with a comma and a conjunction. The semicolon is te wishy-washy middle ground, and overusing you will create big red holographic arrows over your head, topped with a flashing neon sign the says "AMATEUR."

    Semicolon-spangled text is guaranteed to make submissions editors groan, or at least sigh and shake their heads.
     
  4. Mister Micawber
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    Mister Micawber Member

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    I beg to differ; they have their uses. Any punctuation can be misused; fiats for or against them are counterproductive. I could offer similar arguments against commas.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I dxidn't say they don't have their uses. But they rarely need to be used in fiction, and you will find that heavy use of semicolons is high on the list of editors' peeves.

    Even in non-fiction, they should only be uised sparingly.
     
  6. Mister Micawber
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    Mister Micawber Member

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    Maybe I need some clarification, Cogito. Are we to presume that all questions here relate to the writing of fiction? And that all fiction eschews the semicolon? Surely not!

    Unquestionably, Marcus understands the right approach re the use of semicolons ('when two clauses have a strong relation with each other', etc); on the other hand, if Mark once used them 'all the time', he would run into trouble in any genre.

    What I felt needed addressing in Marcus's original post is the seeming paranoia ('risk making a potential grammatical mistake') against using what is a very useful tool. He should be reassured that they have their uses and that when used properly, they will arouse no editor's ire.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The topic title is "Do you use the semicolon often?" (emphasis mine)

    My answer addresses that. Even in non-fiction, heavy use of semicolons is disciuraged. One of my professors made it a special point to the class that he expected not to see semicolons in the class assignments, and that he would subtract points if they were used instead of full stops.

    Being somewhat of a rebel, I found good reason to use them aporopriately; once only, to separate complex items in a list. He did not subtract points for that. But the point remains that they aren't particularly welcome in non-fiction either.

    In fiction, there is even less of a need for them. Nearly always, they should be replaced by full stops, or they indicate sentences badly in need of restructuring.

    The focus of this site is primarily fiction. You're correct that he did not specify fiction in this thread. Nevertheless, my respoinse is that no, I don't use them often, and no, I don't recommend that anyone use them often.
     
  8. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    In the professional world (university, literary agents etc.) the misuse of the semi-colon is not good. My professor went on the longest rant yesterday about how much he hated it because all of us used it incorrectly ( I didn't use one at all). When you know exactly what it is used for, it can be useful when it comes to the flow of the paragraph or the sentence in question.

    No one asked what it is used for, but I'll put that in anyways.

    When you have a list in your writing and each item itself has a comma in it, this is where a semi-colon comes in handy. Example: For his birthday, he received a blue, striped, insulated hat; a long, thin, hockey stick; and a colorful, sturdy set of roller blades.
    This is how I understand it to be used. If I did it wrong, I hope you get the idea because I'm not on the forums for a long time today.

    And then, the other use I am familiar with is the joining of a sentence that can stand on its own, and one that cannot. (can't think of a excellent example right now, but I assure you I did to help the prof explain the use of the semi-colon in this instance).

    Okay, so, can you use it? yes. When people do use it, do they get out of control and start;doing;this;? Yes. It starts appearing places where it should not appear. Not anyone here necessarily, but it can happen to you even if you think it belongs somewhere. My point is, I would avoid using it because, even if I know how and where it is used, if I make but the tiniest error with its usage, that tells the person reading my writing that I don't know what I'm doing.

    So, to answer your question, I don't use it often.
     
  9. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    If I do use semicolons, it's usually within the narrative. I avoid using them in dialogue or characters' thoughts.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i'd never use it in fiction, though i would use it correctly, as needed, in non-fiction...
     
  11. architectus
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    architectus Banned

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    Though I rarely use them, I do use them and will never stop using them.

    if used rarely, the semicolon can make for an elegant relation between two sentences, a relation that otherwise is impossible. This is my opinion, of course.

    Lois Bujold, The Cure of Chalion. (Emphasis mine.)
     
  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Neil, your example works perfectly well, if not better, with a full stop instead of a semicolon.
     
  13. Mister Micawber
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    Mister Micawber Member

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    Neil is architectus?

    If you are speaking of this sentence, Cogito–

    'Her fingers curled and uncurled; the nails were bitten down to the red.'

    – then a period works better if the writer wishes to stress each clause individually, to separate the images. If he wishes to bring them closer toward a single image, to connect the nails to the fingers, then the semicolon is more appropriate. This is a fine example of how the two tools differ and how each can be used to help the writer shape his work.
     
  14. tonten
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    tonten Senior Member

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    I'm curious, what about using semicolons to seperate long "serial action" or would we still use a comma in that case?

    Or what about Serial Sentences. Basically when if you have three sentences you would like to lump together like a list in close relations to one another and you want to give them the effect of the added pause. Would a EM dash be better?
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You should generally break your long serial actions into separate sentences.
     
  16. InkDream
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    InkDream Senior Member

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    I'm overly friendly with the semicolon. Sometimes it just helps with the flow. I just try not to overuse it because it get's a bit redundant.
     
  17. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I read somewhere that em-dash doubles as the informal semi-colon -- a replacement well suited for a more casual voice.
     
  18. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    in fiction, wherever you might want to put a semi-colon, an em dash, comma, period, or conjunction will do a much better job...
     
  19. shadowblaze83
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    shadowblaze83 Member

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    For me the use of a semicolon is very formal. Whether I use it or not depends on what I'm writing. I would use them in an article, non-fiction, or essay perhaps,but not in a short story or fiction.
     
  20. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    a short story is fiction...
     
  21. dgraham
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    dgraham Senior Member

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    What if it's a true (short) story?
     
  22. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    then it's not a 'short story'... it's a personal anecdote... and i still wouldn't use ;s there, either... they're really only needed in articles and scholarly/technical writing... and in non-fiction books that aren't memoirs/autobios...
     
  23. dgraham
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    dgraham Senior Member

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    Wow, that's interesting. For some reason it never clicked with me that a non-fictional recounting of events (however short) wouldn't be a "short story". But, on further reflection, it does seem right.

    I guess I was thinking of story as just a synonym for telling a series of events, and then a "short" story, is still a story, just... short. I wasn't thinking of "short story" as a compound noun with its own distinct meaning!
     
  24. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I have been guilty of overuse in the past.

    I colored in the semicolon on my Mac's keyboard with a black sharpy.

    Out of site, out of mind.
     
  25. LingGrad
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    LingGrad Member

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    Yet still difficult to avoid for the touch typist.

    I enjoy a semi-colon correctly used.
     

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