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Punctuation in Fiction—Are There Prohibitions?

January 11, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 11, 2012

I was speaking with a friend about punctuation—what odd topics writers and editors end up discussing—and the use of semicolons in fiction came up.

While a legitimate punctuation mark, the semicolon has been shunned for use in fiction, especially for dialogue.

Is there a legitimate reason semicolons, or any punctuation, can’t be used in fiction?

You won’t find me telling writers not to use a semicolon.

Punctuation is used for clarity, for emphasis, for rhythm. To deny yourself the use of any punctuation mark is to cut yourself off from an option that might serve your sentence, your scene, or your story.

I’d never tell anyone to always cut out the use of a particular word—for example, don’t eliminate all uses of the word that; some are necessary. In the same way I’d never suggest that a punctuation mark doesn’t have its uses.

With minor adjustments to most sentences, commas and colons and periods can all be made to work in place of the semicolon. But the semicolon brings a rhythm to sentences that other punctuation can’t offer.

Sometimes you want three short sentences in a row, each ending with a full stop. Other times you’ll want to connect those sentences into a single one and use commas and a coordinating conjunction to do so. Other times you’ll want the break—or the connection, depending on how you look at it—that a semicolon provides.

When connecting (or separating) independent clauses, sometimes you want the feel that only a semicolon produces. An example—

Elyse was ecstatic about her son’s release from jail; Joe was ambivalent.

The use of the semicolon here shows that the parts of the sentence are related. The semicolon also reveals the author’s style and the viewpoint character’s feelings.

We could also punctuate the same independent clauses other ways—

Elyse was ecstatic about her son’s release from jail. Joe was ambivalent.

Elyse was ecstatic about her son’s release from jail, but Joe was ambivalent.

Each sentence is valid. But the feel is different.

The sentence with the comma and the but has a softer feel, a smoother flow. You’ll often use this construction for your stories to keep the flow moving. But if you want to stop that flow, want to draw attention to a thought or word or event, you can use a period or a semicolon to halt the momentum of a passage or scene.

Too much of any one rhythm, including unimpeded flow and long sentence after long sentence, lulls (or annoys)  the reader. Can I say it bores the reader? It can.

Forcing the reader to pause or stop shakes him out of the stupor he might have eased into, and a forced stop calls attention to the words at the stop point. You are in fact saying, here is something noteworthy, something different from expectations.

Now, if you want to hide information at the same time you reveal it—clues in a mystery, for example—you wouldn’t point them out in this manner. You’d hide those clues in plain sight by placing them in the flow of the narrative, into the flow of thoughts or description. The clues are there and can be easily identified later; they just don’t draw attention to themselves through sentence construction.

But if you want to draw attention to words or phrases, to a character’s thoughts or feelings or to something the character thinks is important, you can use punctuation to do so.

Use the semicolon or the period to interrupt the flow.

Of course you’ll also want to do the opposite. When sentences are choppy, with too many of them interrupted by semicolons, or when you’ve simply used too many short sentences in a row, substitute commas and a coordinating conjunction for the semicolons and periods to smooth the flow. 

You can also use semicolons rather than commas and a coordinating conjunction to combine a series of those short sentences. This is a useful way to break up an annoyingly repetitive rhythm. Only one way, of course. There are others.

The boy wanted a dog. He hoped to get one soon. He’d always wanted his own puppy. He’d never been allowed to keep the strays he’d brought home.

The boy wanted a dog and hoped to get one soon. He’d always wanted his own puppy; he’d never been allowed to keep the strays he’d brought home.

A natural connection must exist, of course, between the two parts of combined sentences in order for the semicolon to be used correctly. But if that connection exists, use the semicolon.

Varying your punctuation marks gives you variety in sentence construction,  breaks from a monotonous rhythm, and a means of drawing attention to particular words.

___________________________

A quick Google search will reveal advice from writers and editors and other writing professionals that says to never include semicolons in fiction. I can’t see being so dogmatic. If a punctuation mark serves the story—or if it’s a style trait of the writer—use it.

Writers reveal themselves through the words they use and the way they put those words together—through diction and syntax. If a writer uses semicolons, that’s part of her style. Unless a writer’s choices interfere with the foundations and strengths of a story, I see no reason to mess with that writer’s style. A writer’s use of words and punctuation is integral to her style and her voice.

I’m all for pointing out options. But tell a writer she can’t use semicolons? I think that would be short-sighted and clearly a mistake.

I’m curious to know what others think. Have you been told not to use semicolons or other punctuation? Have you directed your clients away from semicolons? Do you think doing so has served writer and story well?

What about other punctuation marks?

*******

While I won’t tell a writer he can never use a certain punctuation mark, I will offer the advice to not overuse the semicolon or any punctuation. Anything that distracts from the story should go, and too much of any one element is a distraction. 

But don’t deny yourself legitimate ways to get your meaning across just because some curmudgeon has a fit about a particular punctuation mark or word or grammar rule. Yes, failure to adhere to some rules could keep you from being published. Use of a semicolon in novels is not one of those sacrosanct rules.

Use the full range of options, but learn to use grammar and punctuation correctly and effectively. Remember your readers and choose options that enhance their reading experiences. Write compelling fiction that carries your voice and style.

Write well today.

***

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Grammar & Punctuation

26 Responses to “Punctuation in Fiction—Are There Prohibitions?”

  1. Consider all the dynamic indicators composers have at their disposal to govern the volume of a work alone: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff, and sfz. Why should they have all the fun?

    Thank you for this liberating article. Every bit of punctuation has its role to play, including those used less often. I like semi-colons; however, I must remind myself not to overdo.

  2. I like the sound of liberating, Sharon. And I’m with you on reminding myself to not overdo a punctuation mark. It’s the em dash that I must watch out for.

  3. Kai says:

    Another fantastic post, Beth. It sure reminds me to double check my writing to see if I have used certain things in excess. I enjoy the nuances that semi-colons provide, as opposed to sticking to choppy sentence structure or commas. In saying so however, I don’t think I’ve ever used an em-dash.

    It would be interesting to hear your opinions about adverb usage in a post. It seems rather controversial in writing circles on the blogosphere, twitter and so on. In the past week I’ve read a post by one writer advocating their use (read: limited) and another which shuns them altogether. As an aspiring writer myself, it is daunting to read such posts and not know what to do in my own writing. In a nutshell, where/how do you draw the line with adverbs?

    I’m not necessarily talking about using them with dialogue, but throughout passages. Adverbs like “quickly” and “suddenly”, for example. I’ve typically avoided them myself, using perhaps no more than two or three in an entire chapter.

  4. Kai, you can probably guess what I’d say about adverbs—every part of speech has its place. But adverbs do have their proponents and their foes, don’t they? Look for an article soon . . .

  5. Maggie Lyons says:

    For those who’ve never seen this, here’s the classic example of why punctuation matters in these two versions of the same letter:
    Dear John,
    I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?
    Agnes

    Dear John,
    I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
    Yours,
    Agnes

  6. Maggie, that’s a great one to illustrate the need for proper punctuation.

    Of course, one of my favorites is the simple—I was waiting for my wife Emily. Which means he wasn’t waiting for any of his other wives. I know the standards have been loosened and many say we no longer need this comma, but there is a difference between I was waiting for my wife Emily and I was waiting for my wife, Emily.

  7. Great topic. I got an email from someone who said, ‘Love the story–lose the semi-colons.’ I probably did have too many of them. So I eliminated them entirely, but you’e right. To be too dogmatic about it limits our options. I’ve also had a book rejected, and the only real criticism in the rejection letter was, ‘Too many semi-colons,’ so that explains my perspective.

    • Louis, I guess the good news is that you now know that you probably do use too many semicolons, so when you edit, you can search for them and make changes. Decide what it is you like about the pattern or rhythm from your use of semicolons and find additional ways to achieve a similar effect.

      When you need them, however, there is no reason not to use semicolons. You just don’t want them standing out to be noticed.

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    • Louis, thanks too for the Facebook mention. Folks have followed you here.

  8. Very good lesson on semicolons. I use them sparingly and never in dialogue.

    Janice~

  9. Julia says:

    Moderation is the silken string running through the pearl-chain of all virtues.

    Thomas Fuller, The Holy State and the Profane State (1642), Book III. Of Moderation.

    • Moderation is indeed a good virtue to consider with punctuation, Julia. (Did Fuller say this or was it Joseph Hall? I looked up the reference and found your quote attributed to both.)

      • Julia says:

        The original was originally written by Hall, and properly attributed by Fuller in “The Holy State”: * Bishop Hall, ” Of Christian Moderation,” p. 6. I verified this by finding an online version of Fuller’s book and locating the quotation and attribution.

  10. CJS says:

    I’m just finishing up my first fiction novel and asked my daughter to read the manuscript to make suggestions. A major one was too many semicolons! I use them to create a reading pace; a rhythm. I see thought that from a readers perspective its evidently too much. Your input and thoughts here, and the comments of others, are much appreciated.

    • CJS, how great to have a daughter who will read your work and actually tell you what she discovers.

      Semicolons are a useful punctuation mark. It’s just that they do stand out. And you don’t want punctuation standing out in your novels.

      Did you follow the related-posts link to Don’t Fear the Semicolon? That article points out the uses of the semicolon. It also points out when other punctuation would be the better choice.

      As an example, in your sentence I use them to create a reading pace; a rhythm, there is no need for a semicolon. If you want a break stronger than the comma provides, use a period instead. But in that example, a comma would be perfect.

      I wish you great success with your novel.

  11. Lou Sanders says:

    I’ve seen writers use a colon after to-be verbs like this.

    My question is: How do you work around it?

    His solution was: Increase the bottom line by five percent.

    The introductory clauses are not grammatically complete sentences. And the writers used a capital letter to start the sentence following the colon.

    Are these sentences punctuated correctly using colon in this manner?

    Thank you, Beth.

    • Lou, as I pointed out to Denise, we don’t use a colon in this manner. Finish the independent clause before the colon or rewrite.

      My question is this: How do you work around it?

      His solution was to increase the bottom line by five percent.

      ———–

      Capitalize after the colon for proper nouns, for direct questions, and for material that ends up being multiple sentences.

  12. Denise Lasky says:

    Beth, I see writers use a colon after to-be verbs, as in:

    The natural order there is: “That is Tom Smith. You met him yesterday.”

    The question was: Why did he do it?

    When I see writers use a colon after the “be” verb, they invariably cap the first letter of the first word following the colon—as exampled above.

    Is it acceptable/correct to use a colon in this manner when the sentence is grammatically incomplete—yes or no?

    Thank you, Beth.

  13. Denise, the short answer is no—don’t use a colon after an incomplete sentence and following a to-be verb.

    There are multiple options for rewriting—

    The question was why he did it.

    The question was this: Why did he do it? (Capitalize after the colon when the second half is a direct question.)

    ———-

    I’m not quite sure of the meaning of your first example, but you can easily rewrite that one as well by finishing the sentence before the colon.

    The natural order there is this: “That is Tom Smith. You met him yesterday.”

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