Page2Print: Syntactical Symmetry – When The Hell Do I Use A Semicolon Anyway?

Writing has its ups and downs. Between the excitement of talking about and brainstorming a new story to the frightening reality of Getting Started. From that moment when you write something truly inspired to the frustration you feel when you have to cut your favorite scene for the sake of the story. From the high that comes with your first praise to the terrible low of your first critical beating.

You have to deal with them all, and failure to deal with any aspect of a writer’s lot with grace and dignity can lead to terrible fallout. Nobody (that matters) wants you to fail for reasons that have little to nothing to do with the writing process.

Editing is one of those steps that you will spend countless hours pursuing on your journey to be a published Author, whether it’s short stories or epic fantasy series. You have to be your own editor first and foremost.

Page2Print – What Is This?

Page2Print is what I’m calling my secondary series that is all about editing. Where Brain2Page is all about the initial writing process, and how to keep yourself moving and motivated and all that flimsy vague nonsense that keeps you from writing, Page2Print explores and focuses on writing rules and guides that I use when I take pen to page and begin the task of chopping my stories apart, or when I chop other people’s stories apart.

No piece of fiction is ever complete on its first draft. There are always cuts to be made, words to be changed, entire arcs to alter and explore, characters to murder violently with a machete (metaphorically or literally depending on your genre), and no end to the general mayhem of restructuring your novel.

In Page2Print you should expect to see meditations on character development, deeper discussions about descriptive voice, active vs. passive voice arguments, grammarian grumbles, syntactical symmetries, and more that all relate to the real meat of editing. The goal is to show you, the aspiring author, how you can take your hastily-written manuscript from monkey to man.

So let’s start with something easy and generally misunderstood:

Syntactical Symmetry

When The Hell Do I Use A Semicolon Anyway?

Semicolons are like some kind of bastard offspring of better, more efficient punctuation. The period and the comma were drunk one night, and they got their signals crossed and one thing led to another until suddenly they had to deal with this horrific little mutant. Neither parent wanted it, but they got joint custody. And this little punctuation mark is all sorts of confused, never knowing if he’s a she or she’s an it or it’s a he or what.

The semicolon isn’t really all that bad. But it kind of is.

The history of the semicolon is steeped in mystery, the likes of which none shall ever understand. I mean, it’s pretty boring, and I love the history of obscure stuff like punctuation so that’s gotta say something about it. Now then, here’s a quote from The Writer’s Handbook:

“Semicolons help you connect closely related ideas when a style mark stronger than a comma is needed. By using semicolons effectively, you can make your writing sound more sophisticated.”

Both of those articles have great information about the clinical, technical space of writing. But the above quote is where things get murky. “By using semicolons effectively, you can make your writing sound more sophisticated.” What is that even supposed to encompass? If I can use a semicolon correctly, it shows that I know how to use a semicolon correctly. The semicolon, then, is a bragging tool. In the words of Vonnegut:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Now then, let me clarify that I find, as I do most things in this life, that the truth for me falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. The semicolon makes you sophisticated, or the semicolon makes you a syntactical braggart. The semicolon is a tool – and can be a useful tool – but it should be used sparingly, if at all. Just because it takes knowledge of the language to use it appropriately doesn’t make it suddenly something you can’t ever use without sounding pretentious.

Now then, I could spend a long time regurgitating facts about how and when it’s technically accurate to use a semicolon, but I linked two things already that do a better job than I could do. What I intend to focus on is something a bit more specific:

How do you decide it’s a good time to use a semicolon?

This assumes you understand what the semicolon does, in a clinical sense, so if you don’t understand what a semicolon is or does and how to apply it technically, then read either of the articles I already linked and come back. I’ll wait forever for a little while.

Ok, so you know how to use a semicolon, and you know when to use a semicolon, but you still don’t grok why you should use one in place of a comma, or why you shouldn’t.

The semicolon is like the exclamation point: using it dilutes its importance. If you tried you could undoubtedly frame every compound sentence with a semicolon and be “technically” correct, but it’s just offensive to the eyes at that point. When you’re editing, you have to pick and choose your compound sentences.

Some of them flow really well together with just the comma and a coordinating conjunction. “He went to the store, but he got lost on the way.” sounds way better than “He went to the store; however, he got lost on the way”. On the other hand, sometimes a set of sentences needs that extra pause. “He went to the video store, and then he went to the dry cleaner.” is pretty boring, but “He went to the video store; then he went to the dry cleaner.” has this clipped importance about it. It sounds authoritative, clinical. There’s just something that makes it.

So you have to come to these kinds of decisions all the time. Is it correct to use a semicolon here? If yes, is it appropriate? That’s the distinction to be made. It can be correct all day, but still be inappropriate to throw punctuation around like it’s confetti, and the semicolon is no different.

So sure, I agree with Vonnegut to a point; I also agree with The Writer’s Handbook to a point. Now, if you’re the kind of person who really cares what someone thinks of your writing (and most people are), you have to take these kinds of ridiculous scenarios into your mind and play around with them. What makes this sentence sound the best? Not “how can I make this sentence look fancy”. Not “I need to show my validity in writing”. And definitely not “semicolons are bastard mutants and I’ll never touch one”.

I love the semicolon. It has its uses just like every other form of punctuation. I also know that everyone falls down on these esoteric issues on a different side of the fence, and that’s okay.

So my question for all of you: Yea or Nay for the semicolon? Why?

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