Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Semi-Colon: Misused and Misunderstood

I do a lot of critiquing and beta reading, and something I keep coming across is the incorrect use of semi-colons.

You know, this thing:


The semi-colon is among the least-common of punctuation marks, so it's not really a surprise that it's so often misused. And when something is a little bit rare, sometimes that leads to people wanting to use it more to look fancy.

Semi-colons are used to join related, but independent sentences. That is, you can't use it like this:

The house on the corner was enormous; with white shutters.

Or like this:

My hair stood up on end; as if I'd been electrocuted.

The sentences on either side of the semi-colon have to be complete sentences, with nouns, verbs, everything. If the sentences aren't complete, they could be joined by a comma, like so:

The house on the corner was enormous, with white shutters.

Or sometimes there doesn't have to be any punctuation:

My hair stood up on end as if I'd been electrocuted.

You can use a semi-colon to join two related, complete sentences, like this:

He looked at me with sad eyes; I wished I hadn't hurt him with what I'd said before.

But, even if you're using semi-colons correctly, I recommend using them very sparingly. They have a stiffer, more formal feel than other punctuation marks, and overusing them doesn't make you look smart: it just makes you look like you're a little kid who's discovered a new word and uses it all the time. Consider the voice and tone of what you're writing and whether or not a semi-colon fits in. For instance, a third-person narrator is more likely to use a semi-colon than a first-person narrator. I don't know about you, but I sure don't think in semi-colons!

I recommend scrutinizing your every use of a semi-colon, and making sure that it's 1) correctly used, 2) absolutely necessary, and 3) not surrounded by other semi-colons.


  1. Our thoughts on this post? YES YES YES YES YES!

    We agree 110%. We agree so much that we were tempted to use semi-colon in the comments as a joke, BUT WE DIDN'T.

  2. I confess, semi colons confuse me. So I don't use them. At least in creative writing. But thank you for this. And hello, I guess I'm a new follower er... bookmarker. It's not often I find fellow Vancouverians (Go Canucks! :D) book blogging.

  3. Great advice! I have to agree with you about the first person thing too. My latest WIP is written in first person, and now that I've finished the rough draft, I'm pretty sure I have somewhere between 0 and less than 5 semicolons. I feel that, with punctuation, even though you CAN use a certain type doesn't mean you should. Sometimes, it's all about what feels right.

    <3 Gina Blechman

  4. Great advice! I just did a post a while ago about the overuse and abuse of certain writing things. Like adverbs, adjectives, em dash's, ellipses, parentheses, etc. I forgot this one though! Thanks for sharing.