Over the past few weeks, I’ve been editing (and editing, and editing, and editing) two short stories that I plan to submit to a journal. For my final two passes this week I focused exclusively on polishing my grammar and punctuation to perfection, and discovered something strange: I go through punctuation phases.
Does this happen to you too? I’ve come across great chunks of my writing where I overuse various punctuation marks with alarming regularity (most recently parentheses have been problematic). The writing I edited from a few weeks ago was rife with em dashes. I am a punctuation addict!
One punctuation mark that I very rarely overuse just happens to be my favourite punctuation mark of all: the mighty semicolon.
Now I know it makes me a super-nerd to have a favourite punctuation mark, but I have three solid reasons for my love of the semicolon:
It’s misunderstood: It seems that many people (myself included) avoid the semicolon for fear of misusing it, which is exactly why I love it. Each time I include a semicolon in my writing, I second guess it, which forces me to really think through what I’m putting on the page. This article from the University of Ottawa Writing Centre provides confidence boosting tips for when to use (and not use) the semicolon. And for a whole lot of semicolon fun, check out The Oatmeal’s ‘How to use a semicolon the most feared punctuation on earth.’
It’s underused: Unlike the comma or ellipsis, it’s unusual to come across a writer that overuses the semicolon. I recently read Catching Fire by the amazing Suzanne Collins and I swear there was only one semicolon in the entire book. As a lover of the semicolon, I noticed its absence (although I have already run across several semicolons in the next book in Suzanne’s Hunger Games series, Mockingjay).
It’s powerful: Perhaps because it’s underused, I take great pleasure in reading a book or piece of writing that makes good use of the semicolon. The semicolon always catches my attention in a way that no comma or dash can. Even better, if a writer uses the semicolon with skill and aplomb, they earn my undying admiration and respect.
A quick Google search has shown me that I’m not alone in my love for the semicolon. In fact, some people have even tattooed semicolons on themselves! I’m not sure I’d take things that far, but it’s a relief to know I’m not alone in my nerdy love of the semicolon.
But, there are also writers who eschew the semicolon entirely, especially when it comes to fiction. As James Scott Bell mentions in his article ‘The Great Semicolon Debate‘, Kurt Vonnnegut had a strong dislike for the semicolon (a quite vicious one, I might add).
As I continue my editing, I’ll be looking for ways to tastefully include semicolons, and continuing my all out battle on parentheses and em dashes.
Have you noticed certain punctuation marks creeping into your writing just a little too often? Do you share my love for the oft-misunderstood semicolon? What steps have you taken recently to clean up your writing?