Shocking Semi-Colons

NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.


Semi-colons are tricky; they’re easy to over use, put in the wrong places or not use at all. The way I find helps to think of them is a way of joining two sentences that could function independently as short sentences but would sound better as a longer sentence. This probably sounds like a very vague description but sometimes I find that working by the sound and feel of sentences is more effective than simply trying to apply theoretical principles which sometimes get me in a twist. That can be part of the problem with grammar; sometimes people get so into the technical detail they forget to give us an easily understood way to apply it.

Take my first sentence, a semi-colon before a list. I could have use a colon : to form a list, however, I always think the colon looks very abrupt, it creates a sharper pause than a semi-colon. To me, and not everyone will say this, a colon looks like:

‘Statement: Bang, bang, bang.’

This is good if you want to emphasise points and say ‘I am making a list of reasons this is what they are’. In my first sentence I was making a list but I had no desire to emphasise the points. I was creating a list of examples as to why semi-colons are tricky as a reassurance, and it is not a complete list either. One of the problems I have with applying grammar theory is that books often focus on technical function rather than intent. Perhaps it might’ve been more technically accurate to use a colon but it didn’t fit the intent.

In my second use of the semi-colon at the end of the first paragraph I used it in a different way. I could’ve used:

That can be part of the problem with grammar. Sometimes people get so into the technical detail they forget to give us an easily understood way to apply it.

This is nice. Definitive statement followed by an explanation, except they don’t quite work independently as statements. ‘That is the problem…’ Wait? What is the problem? Now we could say that the previous sentence contextualised the statement except it didn’t quite, the statement still felt lacking alone. If you want to look at it another way in this context my semi-colon is performing a similar function to ‘because’ or ‘as in’ and similar. So using punctuation I’ve gone ‘Statement because reason’.

The final way I tend to apply semi-colons is to link a simple sentence and a more complex one. This is usually in the context of statement and explanation; it might be one where I could use a comma, perhaps with some description, but I have an additional statement confined within commas. See what I did there? The sentence could’ve worked as:

This is usually in the context of statement and explanation; it might be one where I could use a comma but I have an additional statement confined within commas.

In this case I might’ve got away with a comma instead of the semi-colon:

This is usually in the context of statement and explanation, it might be one where I could use a comma but I have an additional statement confined within commas.

But by adding the extra information I would’ve created a statement with a potentially confusing number of commas:

This is usually in the context of statement and explanation, it might be one where I could use a comma, perhaps with some description, but I have an additional statement confined within commas.

By using the semi-colon I have a clear distinction between statement and explanation. For all the complexity of grammar clarity is what it comes down to. We have all these punctuation marks to increase the clarity of our writing so sometimes rather than try and interrogate ourselves as to whether our grammar is technically accurate thinking in terms of clauses and complex sentences it can be helpful to ask ourselves if we’ve communicated our point with clarity. We could, if we chose, write a sentence several lines long and grammatically perfect but grammatical perfection does us no good if our reader has lost our original point.

As writers we also play with punctuation as we would with words to create the effect we want when people are reading it. My first statement, for instance, where I used a semi-colon to deemphasise and allow the list to flow more gently because I was trying to invite you in. My intended effect was ‘we’ve all been in the same boat’ rather than ‘these are the definitive reasons why’. To do this we don’t need to know the technical jargon, we simply need to have a sense of how punctuation impacts reading.


Article Archive 1
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. This is the last part.

Advertisements

Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

Join the Conversation

6 Comments

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: