In Defense of the Semicolon
If you’ve taken a creative writing class, read a how-to book on writing or been scolded by an editor, you’ve been told that semicolons do not belong in fiction writing. Perhaps a red pen has crossed through your semicolon, replacing it with a period and a capital letter, or maybe you’ve been told to rewrite and add a conjunction, instead.
But why? What’s a semicolon ever done to be pushed to the back of the line and treated like a second-class punctuation mark? Did it offend the other marks with its cheeky wink? Maybe it’s because the semicolon is the only punctuation mark that can take two sentences and unite them as one.
It’s quite possible the semicolon got a bad reputation simply from misuse. After all, if it’s outlawed, there will always be those who will try to use it—reverse psychology at its best—and use it improperly. But if it’s outlawed, how will anyone truly learn how to use the much-maligned semicolon?
This distinguished mark serves two main purposes: connecting two independent, yet related clauses into one unified sentence without requiring a conjunction and separating items in a series that already contains internal punctuation.
Sure, two independent clauses can be two distinct sentences, but isn’t it great to have that special mark to say, “Hey, these two clauses here belong together; read them that way.” By joining them, one cohesive thought is born.
But a semicolon really flexes its muscles when punctuating a complex series. Suppose for a moment, as a writer, you needed to punctuate the dialogue of a young student reading his ‘What I Did Over the Summer’ report. Suppose little Jimmy were to visit “New Jersey, where my grandma lives; Florida, where Mickey Mouse lives; Texas, where it’s really, really hot; and California, where we saw surfers.” There’s really no better way to cleanly separate each item in the list than with a semicolon.
Maybe there’s an underground movement toward the acceptance of the semicolon in fiction writing. Maybe it’s just my opinion, but the semicolon has been suppressed for too long. As an editor, I encourage their use in moderation—and I’m a stickler for correct usage. But who knows, I may let more than a couple slip by simply because semicolons, when used properly, can take a couple of choppy sentences and smooth their flow into one thought.