Editing and My Love for the Semicolon

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?

Author: Carrie Mumford

Carrie Mumford is a writer and content manager living in Calgary, Alberta. She write short stories and non-fiction articles, and blogs about technology, editing, writing and (of course) books.

  • Mine is the double hyphen!
    It was really great reading this post. I’ve learned a lot about the semicolon. I was also uncomfortable using it before because of the thought it’s inappropriate. Actually, I only get to use it when Microsoft Word does it’s grammar check. But now, I’m going to start using it often when writing articles. Thanks!

  • Hurray for nerdy punctuation posts! (I recently wrote a defense of the exclamation point…) My finished novel has zero semicolons, because the close-in first person protagonist is a small-town reporter and I opted to have her use colons occasionally (since she’d use them in cutlines and subheads) but no dashes or semicolons. My new novel is historical fiction so I’m allowing myself quite a number of semicolons and I’m enjoying each one! I definitely plan a punctuation pass through as part of revisions to make sure I’m not overusing anything. Except periods. They can’t be overused, right?

    • Hi Laura!

      Can you send me the link to your exclamation point post? I also love the friendly exclamation post, so would love to read your post! (Purposefully placed exclamation point there).

      You raise a really good point about the semicolon that James Scott Bell touched upon as well: the semicolon isn’t appropriate for all types of writing. That’s why I assumed there were so few semicolons in Catching Fire: it was written for a YA audience.

      I’m working on a historical fiction too! Which time period/place are you writing in?

      Many questions for you! Thanks for your comment :)

  • Ah, the semicolon. It has long been a favorite of mine, ever since I learned how to properly wield it. My abuse of the semicolon is most likely pretentious in nature, my way of saying to the world, “Mwahaha, I’ll not allow myself to be vanquished by this tiny punctuation mark!”

    Semicolons fill me with love; I find them elegant and quite pretty to gaze upon. However, I have been forcing myself to limit its use, particularly because I have a tendency towards long, complex sentences. When I edit, I am usually forced to break up many of these sentences. I attempt to leave a handful of semicolons in, though I have silly rules that I’ve made for myself. Chief among them: sentences with semicolons can’t occur in every paragraph, and should have a buffer zone of at least 2-3 semicolon-free paragraphs. I have similar rules for parenthetical asides and em dashes, which I also tend to abuse. The fact that I tend to speak in asides and em dashes makes it all the more difficult to expunge them from my text.

    Loving this nerdy grammar post!

    • Ah! A fellow semicolon lover! I think your rules are great – isn’t it funny how we have to make rules to suit our own personal punctuation addictions? Thanks so much for your feedback on the post. I haven’t posted about punctuation or grammar before, but now perhaps I’ll have to do so more often.

  • Carrie,

    When I started writing, I rarely used semi-colonsl. I think I found them school-ish. Later, I started using them and came to like them, but not as much as my editor at TouchWood. She had me put them in places i hadn’t considered. Then, my copy ditor changed some back to commas.

    I hadn’t realized punctuation would be one of the main issues of my editing process.

    I’ll read your rules about semi-colons. Perhaps, they are coming back into style.


    • You know, I hadn’t really thought the possibility that they’re coming back into style! I guess semicolons (like the serial comma) are one of those punctuation marks that people feel strongly about one way or the other.

      It’s interesting to hear that punctuation was one of the main parts of your editing process; I admired the punctuation in Deadly Fall, so it must have all turned out well! [I initially used an em dash there, until I realized I missed a chance to use a beloved semicolon!]

  • The serial comma was another issue. I don’t use them, but my copy editor does. I went along with her because I’m not a punctuation expert. I also looked it on line and it seems it’s considered a matter of choice, with no right or wrong.

    • Yup, I believe it’s a matter of preference too. Sometimes I like the serial comma, but sometimes I don’t (more of those punctuation phases I guess). I am going to have to do my next punctuation post on the much-debated serial comma!

  • Punctuation would give you months of blogging material. Who knew it could be so fascinating? Actually, the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves figured that out – I forget where she put the commas.

  • That posting post spread a broad smile across my face.

    I do exactly the same, but I prefer the em-rule to the semicolon … Oh, and I am very fond of ellipsis! It’s right here in the post … ;-)

    Right now, »editing my story« is on my to-do list as well – I got my edited story per e-mail yesterday.
    Personally, I hate editing, because I am always afraid to do »too much«, which means that I’d ruin the atmosphere, tone, etc. of my story … But I’m trying to focus on the minor things first and then move on to the greater changes.

    When I had a quick look at the demanded changes, I found out that it is going to be pretty hard … And there will be a lot of arguing with the publisher involved … :-( But we’ll see how it turns out.

    Good luck with your editing!
    I’ll keep my finger’s crossed for your short stories. :-)
    Julia. :-)

  • I overuse the semicolon and the comma. I found this whole thing funny because it means I’m in the minority. I know how to use one correctly, but I do think I tend to overdo it somedays.

    I used to abuse parentheses and colons; I’ve grown a lot since those days. In middle school, it was the exclamation point. I couldn’t live without it! How else does one express all of the excitement and teenage angst?

    I consult my grammar books and make sure that I actually need the punctuation I feel I’m overusing. Sometimes, I’ll even change around the sentence so I don’t need to use it. Anything to make the writing better. Sometimes our punctuation love has to die for writing to live, LOL.

    Interesting post!

    • I have definitely been (and still often am) guilty of overusing the exclamation point! I try not to use it when I’m writing fiction, but it always sneaks into my blog comments and emails.

      I guess just like we sometimes need to ‘kill our darlings’ to create a good story, we need to kill our favourite punctuation marks.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Good for you and your semicolon love!

    I find myself favoring certain phrases or words. As I’m editing my novel, I’ll notice I’ve overused a word for a couple of chapters. Then it disappears. I wonder what I was thinking about to make me keep using that word.

    Also, I’ll find myself following a certain style, usually if I’m reading a particular author. I know some writers who don’t read any fiction while they’re writing to avoid things like that.

    • I find myself going through word phases too. I sometimes do a ‘ctrl Find’ for certain words that I suspect I’ve overused in my work.

  • Oh yeah, the “favourite word”! [insert enthusiastic nod here]. A friend and I would actually nominate our “word/phrase of the essay” whenever we had to write stuff for some course at university … ;-)

  • Carrie, I know EXACTLY what you mean by the semicolon being underused; yes I do believe that it’s mostly attributed to fear of not knowing, or of misusing it. What I personally love about it is that it actually gives my thoughts a little more structure, because sometimes a comma isn’t enough and a period is just too much to deal with… there you find the infamous semicolon shouting out “use me, I’m exactly what you need in this sentence”. Funny thing is that I was just thinking of this a few days ago after being criticized for overusing semicolons in my writing; what I believe though is that I don’t overuse it, I just use it… but relative to the general lack of use of the semicolon, I appear to overuse it.

    Great post. ;-)

    • I’ve heard from a few people who have been told they overuse the semicolon now – and here I thought these people did not exist! I think you’re right though – sometimes overuse of the semicolon can be attributed to the lack of semicolon use in writing to start with. I like you comment about “sometimes the comma isn’t enough and a period of just too much to deal with.” That sums up my love of the semicolon perfectly!

      Thanks for your comment!

  • I love using em dashes. Using them has said to be crossing dangerous waters but I love it. Once you master using them, you learn when and when not to overuse. I also use semicolons.
    A great place where I learned to use punctuations (as well as grammer) is from Grammer girl. She has podcast and books as well. Her website is http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/. She has great advice on punctuations.

  • The lilt in your voice makes me smile. I am plain and simply put afraid of the semi-colon. I had an instructor advise me, the whole class actually that no one was allowed to use a semi-colon because most everyone within and without the class was too stupid to use it properly. Hmphhh…. crazy for an english instructor to say such things!!! My affair is likely with a warped version of the elipses….. never in threes thoough usually five or six dot dot dots …… =0)

    • Great to hear from your Rona! I think you need to use the semicolon just to spite that mean instructor! Actually, you’re instructor is not alone – the semicolon has its fair share of haters. I had a love affair with the ellipsis a few years ago. They’re very addictive!

      Hope you’re having a great summer (and that you’re writing is going well)!

  • I think I’ve always been a little afraid of the semicolon because I never totally understood him : ). I am the queen of the comma though, and always need to go back and send a boatload of them packing!

    • Ooo the comma scares me. I like it too much, so am afraid to use it. I once had an English teacher in high school who told me that you only have so many commas in your pocket, so you should use them sparingly. Thanks for dropping by, Pam!

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