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Punctuation in Fiction—Are There Prohibitions?

on January 11th, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on 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

13 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~

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  2. [...] 1. Make sure all your semi-colons are used correctly – i.e. when you want a pause between two related sentences. More details here. [...]