Arena Tips: The Semicolon and You

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A lot of the stories we’ve edited on here have contained some confusing and/or incorrect choices when it comes to writing. We are not grammar fanatics here at the arena, but brushing up on the basics never hurts.

Today we’ll be discussing:

The Semicolon

Do:

  • Use a semicolon to separate two complete thoughts that can stand on their own individually.
  • Use a semicolon to force the reader to crash those two separate thoughts together in their head, making them draw a comparison or juxtapose those two thoughts for added impact.

Do not:

  • Use a semicolon like a “super comma.” It is not a super comma. Read what is written on one side of the semicolon. Is it a complete sentence? No? Then don’t use a semicolon. Yes? Good you’re halfway there. Now read what’s on the other side of the semicolon. Is it a complete thought? No? Then don’t use a semicolon. Yes? Okay, technically a semicolon may be used here. But…
  • Overuse semicolons. They are a tool to be used for a purpose, and the more you use them, the less impact they continue to have. You only have so many words to work with in a story, make sure if you are using something as unique as a semicolon, that it is being used in a place where you want the reader to pause and consider those two sentences. The first time your reader hits a semicolon, they will do just that. The tenth time they hit a semicolon, they’ve stopped caring about them.

Correct:

  • Jim picked up the sack of beans; it was limp and loose like his son’s body had been.

See? Before the semicolon we have a complete sentence: “Jim picked up the sack of beans.” That can stand alone. It has a subject, a verb, and an object.

The same goes for: “It was limp and loose like his son’s body had been.” This is also a complete sentence.

Plus, while I have no idea what is going on in this story, those two thoughts do seem like they’d have a bit more impact being linked together. They may very well not have more impact, and it might be better to let them stand as two stark and separate sentences. That is a judgement call based on style and what you are trying to achieve at this moment in your story.

But the semicolon is being used correctly here, and with decent impact.

Incorrect:

  • Jim picked up the sack of beans; limp and loose.

Before the semicolon we’re doing okay. We still have a complete thought.

But after the semicolon? “Limp and loose,” is not a complete sentence. It requires a verb, an object, and a subject in order to be a complete sentence. Therefore, it should not be standing alone on one side of a semicolon. It needs to be connected to other words, most likely with a comma.

Plus, this isn’t especially profound. Granted, who knows what else is going on in this story, but making your reader pause and ponder how limp and loose a sack is doesn’t really seem like a great way to get the most bang for your semicolon usage.

Though, again, it’s not used correctly in the first place so that doesn’t matter.

The Caveat:

The Arena loves creativity. The Arena loves voice. The Arena loves art, and one of the most fundamental concepts behind art is that if it works, then it works.

It’s possible that you are a semicolon wizard whose usage of the semicolon breaks all the rules and still leaves us breathless. You may be the e.e. cummings of semicolons.

Please always stay true to what your heart is telling you while creating.

We’re just saying…if you don’t really know how semicolons are used, you are best served by becoming proficient with the fundamentals first, and then experimenting with wizardry.

photo credit: mag3737 via photopin cc

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2 Comments

  1. Kurt Vonnegut hated them.

    “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

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