1. northernpsyche
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    northernpsyche Member

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    Those pesky semi colons

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by northernpsyche, Oct 14, 2012.

    Does anyone else get confused with semi colon use in fiction. I'm fine with them in writing professionally, for reports and such like. However the rules of grammar breakdown in fiction. For example to speed up the pace etc. So i struggle with them in fiction, never quite sure if i have used them correctly.
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    If you're not sure, don't use them. Many writers won't use them at all in fiction anyway.

    Semicolons are rarely if ever necessary for good fiction. Some will argue in favor of using them, but you will never fail to get a publishing contract for not using them.
     
  3. northernpsyche
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    northernpsyche Member

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    Arrhh thats interesting and encouraging. The writers i read do use them quite often though. Obviously their semicolon savvy.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    when in doubt, don't struggle, simply don't use 'em!

    in all instances, a comma, period, em dash, or conjunction will do a better job in fiction...
     
  5. cazann34
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    cazann34 Active Member

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    I copied and pasted this from the BBC writing page:

    Semi-colons

    1. Where the meaning is closely connected, we can use semi-colons to link two ideas together as an alternative to full stops:

    'Some people like to get up early in the morning and get going; others are unable to do anything before nine or ten o’ clock.'
    2. Like commas, semi-colons are also used to separate items on a list and are preferred to commas when the items are more grammatically complex:
    'You can use our flat at the seaside as long as you observe the following: you do not play loud music late at night; you remember to lock up whenever you leave; you clean up every morning before you go out; you replace any items that you break or damage.'



    Colons

    1. As we saw in the last example, colons can be used before a list.

    2. Colons can be used to introduce quotations or direct speech:

    'In the words of Whitney Houston: "I’m every woman!"'
    'Speaking to the entire nation on the radio, the Prime Minister began his address by saying: "More than fifty million people are now affected by the drought..."
     
  6. northernpsyche
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    northernpsyche Member

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    I shall copy and paste it too. I think i will use them sparingly. I could see my pages littered with the pesky things.

    Thanks.
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Bad assumption. Not all who use XXX language feature do so correctly. Even if they are published.

    One reason many publishers react negatively to manuscripts with heavy use of semicolons is because of widespread misuse of them.
     
  8. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    One thing to keep in mind with this advice is that this is from the BBC. They have built their reputation on writing Non-Fiction. The advice here seems to be geared more towards secular writing, or journalism. If it's fiction you're writing, like Cog and Maia said, other punctuation will do the job just as well, and with less confusion most of the time.
     
  9. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Why does it matter if it's fiction or non-fiction? Sentences are sentences and punctuation is punctuation.

    Read the work of good writers. Pay attention to how these writers use punctuation. You'll develop the sensitivity required to know when semicolons are appropriate, and even preferable to the alternatives.
     
  10. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    because to american readers, they're expected in non-fiction, but not in fiction... and in non-fiction, they may be the best option for that instance, whereas in fiction you have better[reader-wise] options...
     
  11. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    Like Maia said, It's not expected for there to be semicolons in fiction, at least not in North America (I don't know about the UK). They seem to formal for fiction. I'd expect them more in hard sci-fi or military fiction, where everything is crisp and formal, but for the most part, Semicolons seem to be an overly complex method of doing something simple. Yeah you can use them to join comma splices into a grammatically correct form, among other things, but in fiction it just seems to... academic. Just my opinion.

    And as for reading other's work to get the sensitivity to use semicolons, I agree to an extent, but you can't just rely on what others do. There are very definite rules that you have to understand, regardless of whether or not you're going to use semicolons, or anything really. If you're going to write, you have to know the rules to a tee before you can break them, otherwise it just comes across as inconsistent.
     
  12. Fivvle
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    Fivvle Contributing Member

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    I'm American, and I use semicolons all the day long. ;;;;;;;;;;;;;; See?
    Nah, but really - I use semicolons way too much.
     
  13. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends what you mean by better, doesn't it? The writers I enjoy tend to use a few semicolons here or there, and without exception I think their writing is the better for it. It gives them an extra bit of flexibility in structuring their prose, and they use it well. But I agree with Cog: if somebody doesn't know how to use them it's better to avoid them (except maybe for exercises, to get the knack of using them).
     
  14. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    you may, dig... but you're in the UK, not the US... and my use of 'better' was US-related, as i think i made clear...
     
  15. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I bet in the USA it's a matter of personal taste, just as it is in the UK. I just looked up the #1 title on USA today's best seller list (Mark Riordan's "The Mark of Athena"), looked inside the US version of the book on Amazon.com, and in the short extract it showed there were four semicolons. The number two title, Sylvia Day's "Reflected in You" has 3 semicolons in the short Amazon extract. The number 3 title, Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Kennedy" has two. I'm not going to argue about the literary merits of those books, but it's clear that US publishers and the general US population are accepting of semicolons in fiction even if you are not!
     
  16. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Yes, in the US it seems to be a matter of personal taste. Sure, the average reader may not know if the semicolon is being used correctly, but I don't think that's enough to discourage him/her from finishing the book.

    It also seems that genre influences how often semicolons are used. I see them a lot more in literary/general fiction than I do in other genres.
     
  17. cazann34
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    cazann34 Active Member

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    The BBC is the British Broadcast Corporation - its a television channel in Britain, they have fiction and non fiction programming and have radio channels too; wildlife magazines, and no doubt other magazines which I can't think of right now. They also have a grammar/punctuation site on the net, oddly enough! I'm not sure what you thought it was.

    EDIT: My two cents worth. Semi colons are there to help the reader understand the text, translating the author's thought processes. They merge sentences together showing the readers why the author saw these sentences as one thought, or why a list was divides up into easier parts, matching similar items together. Its the writers attempt to clarify his work - if the work is unclear, the reader will stop reading. The author wants the reader to carry on reading and will use punctuation to assist with breaks and pacing.

    Perhaps its something that is used more in the UK than in the States I do not know but one this is clear, punctuation appears to change with the times; when I was at school it was incorrect to start a sentence with 'but' now everyone is doing it. Perhaps the Semi Colon will be the same one day, everyone will be using it.
     
  18. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    Because of considerations like character and voice. When relating dialogue, semi-colons are pretty useless. The represent a paused rhythm, like a comma, but longer. A period suffices, and in dialogue, the semi-colon will only distract the reader: "What's this? A semi-colon here? How long is this pause?"

    In fictional narration, a semi-colon may be handy, or it may not, depending on the authorial voice you wish to impart. The use of semi-colons seems to impart a formal tone to a narrative, which is fine and well if that's the voice you want to use. If your narrator is instead a rube from Podunk, Idaho, a semi-colon might not be so handy.

    Sentences may just be sentences, and punctuation may just be punctuation, but creative writing is a little more than just the conventions of usage. Other considerations are more important when the goal is to transport the reader.
     
  19. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Maybe novice readers will (and sure enough there are no semicolons in the books I read to my grandchildren). If a reasonably fluent reader or better stops to think about a semicolon then the writing is already boring them.
     
  20. cazann34
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    cazann34 Active Member

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    This is a very good point Thumpalumpacus made. I don't believe I've ever seen a semi colons used in dialogue. Has anyone seen it used in dialogue?
     
  21. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i've only seen them used in dialog by british authors in 'older' works... and even then, not often...
     
  22. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've recently been reading a volume of Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction stories, and he used tons of semicolons in dialogue. One interesting point about this is that in the heyday of Heinlein, science fiction was probably read mostly by teenagers (even if it was written for adults). Back then, American kids had no trouble with semicolons at all. This trepidation regarding semicolons seems to be a recent thing. Are we just assuming that Americans are too dull-witted to deal with semicolons? Are we trying to protect our sensitive and delicate young people from the perils of unfamiliar punctuation? Is this punctuation unfamiliar simply because we've been protecting our sensitive and delicate young people from its perils?

    I've also seen semicolons in dialogue in T.C. Boyle's stories.

    Since I joined this forum and became aware of this unsettling bias against semicolons in American fiction, I've become sensitive to them, and I regularly see semicolons in such places as current New Yorker fiction. They haven't gone away, and it seems that many prominent American writers and editors are perfectly happy with them. In fact, this forum is the only place I've ever seen where people actively discourage the use of semicolons. That's probably why I find it necessary to defend them.
     
  23. Thumpalumpacus
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    Thumpalumpacus Contributing Member

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    It's this novelty which would draw me up, and I'm no novice at reading.
     
  24. digitig
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    I've seen them in dialogue by popular contemporary British writers (last time this came up I was reading an Ian Rankin book, and he uses semicolons in dialogue). And Sylvia Day is American, isn't she? She uses semicolons in dialogue. I suspect people (even in the USA) are reading loads of stuff with semicolons in (even in dialogue) but actually aren't noticing them. If semicolons are used well, they just fit into the flow and are as inconspicuous as any other good punctuation.
     

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