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The Editing Hour: The Semicolon revisited

A quick note about semicolons. I’ve blogged about them before: how to use them to connect two independent clauses and alternatives you can use instead: a period and a capital or a comma and a coordinating conjunction, or FANBOYS. But what I didn’t say was use them sparingly. It’s tempting when you learn a new big word like “fastidious” or “apocryphal” to use it all the time. “Oh, come on, John! I know how fastidious Mary can be, but that story about her washing the toilet seat with bleach every time she pees sound apocryphal to me.” And it’s tempting when you learn the proper way to use a semicolon or an m-dash to use those every chance you get, too. Don’t. It’s distracting when every paragraph of your book has a sentence with a semicolon in it. Just use a capital and a period. Or link the two sentences together with a comma. Or you’ll make your editor go crazy and eat way too much chocolate while she’s editing your book and get fat and have to go running instead of enjoying the fabulous story you have to tell.

What about you? Any pet peeves in other people’s writing? Do tell!

10 comments to The Editing Hour: The Semicolon revisited

  • Well, one of my peeves is the elves in the Word grammar-check program tell you to convert all your perfectly grammatical commas into semicolons. Makes me crazy. I'll bet that's why you're seeing them where they don't belong. Seriously, I just ran my ms. through the grammar/spell check and about half the "mistakes" were failures to insert unnecessary semicolons.

    And remember, especially in fiction, the em dash is your friend.

  • Haha, I haven't used Word's grammar-check in so long (we're talking a decade maybe) that I nearly forgot about it. But Anne's right, I bet a lot of "corrections" are actually mistakes.

    I can't think of a grammatical pet peeve I have… Except maybe commas after "but." (Ex. "I see what you're saying but, I don't think you're right.") I get that some people talk that way (pause after "but") but that doesn't make it grammatically correct.

  • Anne and Kristan – I've NEVER used grammar check in Word. I can't believe it inserts semicolons everywhere! The horror! The horror! And I have to confess, I LOVE the m-dash and I use it more than I probably should. I came across a blog post somewhere saying you should NOT use the m-dash. I wish I could remember where.

    Kristan – that is super annoying as are commas before "because." GRR.

  • julia

    I have a weakness for semicolons, but even more for m-dashes. I use them constantly; they just work for me. We'll see if my editor kills them all in my new book.

  • Julia – I love m-dashes, too. I'm going to find that article against the m-dash and post it. (I just did a Twitter search and got a lot of awful hip hop tweets and mentions of 100 m dashes.) Will have to try Google …

  • Great last sentence about eating too much chocolate! As a closet elitist and prescriptivist about language, I probably use more semicolons that I should, but I think we're in agreement about the general principle: any stylistic or grammatical device, when overused, draws too much attention to itself, and thus distracts and detracts from one's writing at large. Punctuational variety is the spice of prose, right?

  • Nate, too bad I'm just getting fat on chocolate and not doing much running these days! I love semicolons, and I love the m-dash, but yes, they really should be used sparingly. Like butter and flashbacks and hair conditioner.

  • […] « The Editing Hour: The Semicolon revisited […]

  • […] I’ve always followed the rule that colons only come after a complete sentence and that, with regards to capitalization, they should be treated like periods while semicolons should be treated like commas. In other words, capitalize a sentence after a colon and leave it lowercase after a semicolon. (For more about those other little devils, see my posts titled semicolons and semicolons revisited.) […]

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