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  • Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by debac at 12:47 on 22 April 2013
    An (American) book on writing that I'm reading suggests semi colons are old fashioned and shouldn't be used in fiction (okay in formal reports). So long as used in moderation, do you reckon they're okay in fiction?
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by EmmaD at 13:27 on 22 April 2013
    Of course they are; I've never heard anything so ridiculous in all my born days. (Although I have, actually - all the times I've heard this "rule"). How else do you get that nuance of two sentences which are closely related but not the same thing?

    I knew a distinguished editor who maintained that they shouldn't be used in dialogue. I think he had a point, and one I'd probably adhere to; the relationship is one of logic and meaning, not how speech sounds. But that's different.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by debac at 13:36 on 22 April 2013
    Thanks Emma. That was what I thought, but it's so hard to filter all the rules and advice which we read and hear, isn't it? I've just used one.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by GaiusCoffey at 13:47 on 22 April 2013
    Of course they are; I've never heard anything so ridiculous in all my born days. (Although I have, actually - all the times I've heard this "rule"). How else do you get that nuance of two sentences which are closely related but not the same thing?

    *searches in vain for the "Like" button*
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by debac at 14:12 on 22 April 2013
    Yes, everything, everywhere should have a Like button, shouldn't it, Gaius? And a Dislike one would be useful too.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by RJH at 14:56 on 22 April 2013
    You can't write this without semi-colons:

    To err is human; to forgive, divine.

    If you write it in another way you lose the rhythm and contrast that makes it such an effective and memorable line.

    I've come across this 'rule' about semi-colons, but I think what it really means is 'don't write unnecessarily long and complicated sentences'. Since semi-colons do facilitate the writing of unnecessarily long and complicated sentences, it's easy to see why they get the blame. But that's mistaking cause for effect.

    Moderation in all things, however - especially advanced punctuation.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by EmmaD at 15:55 on 22 April 2013
    And the best cure for a comma splice is almost always a semi-colon; at least temporarily, as expressing what the writer was trying to get at.

    'don't write unnecessarily long and complicated sentences'


    And the essential part of that sentence is "unnecessarily"...

    Since semi-colons do facilitate the writing of unnecessarily long and complicated sentences, it's easy to see why they get the blame.


    Along with "was" and "that" and "had" and so on being blamed for bad writing when it's not them at all - it's various kinds of bad in which they're innocently implicated. It's like blaming the canary in the mine for the gas explosion.

    <Added>

    "To err is human; to forgive, divine."

    Is perhaps another example of why rules aren't rules, they're conventions. In the normal, ordinary conventions, both sides of a semi-colon joiner-divider should be grammatically finite sentences, and the second half of that one isn't.

    It's not "correct", but it's absolutely right; that's why it's one of the great sentences in the language.

    <Added>

    IT is very nearly correct, mind you - or maybe it is in some refinement of grammar that I'd need David Crystal's 100 book to look up:

    The comma after "forgive" is a gapping comma, which is the sort which goes where the omitted word is.

    In this case the omitted word is "is", which is the main verb - so we hear a second "is" in that second half - and the sentence becomes complete. Divine, in other words.

    I do love it when form follows function.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by debac at 16:28 on 22 April 2013
    I enjoy semi-colons too. I don't really use colons in fiction.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by AlanH at 01:42 on 23 April 2013
    So long as used in moderation, do you reckon they're okay in fiction?


    But if you extended this reasoning to all punctuation, it would be nonsensical. Why should the semi-colon be restricted?

    Personally, I use them when they're needed. If other people think that's too much, then that's their problem and it won't change my opinion.

    Colons have a use, too.

    I hate narrow-minded thinking, such as that American dictate.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by EmmaD at 09:38 on 23 April 2013
    I agree with Alan - it's not about "moderation" in the crude sense - 15 per 10,000 words is okay 50 per 10,000 words isn't - it's about using them in the right places and not in the wrong ones.

    The only way I'd think having some kind of sense that there's a "too many" level for the number of times you use any technique is when it's something where the law of diminishing returns sets it.

    For example, it can be incredibly powerful to use a very short abrupt sentence every now and again. It's powerful. It's abrupt. It works. But the more you do it, the less striking and effective it becomes each time.
    For things like that, then you could use your awareness that there are an awful lot of short sentences in your first draft as an alarm-bell, and then go and interrogate each example to see if it's the best place to use it: strengthen some by getting rid of others.

    And on total rubbish like "cut everything that has 'was' in it", I am grudgingly willing to concede that if it's useful to you as an alarm-bell that you might fall too often into passive constructions, then I won't stop you thinking that way, as long as you understand that it's not actually anything to do with "was" as a word.

    You could, similarly, use semi-colons for an alarm-bell that you've got an awful lot of sentences with essentially the same construction, and a bit of breaking up and redistributing might be a good idea. But, again, the semi-colon is only the flag of that: it's an alarm bell, not something which in itself you need to be sparing with.

    Funny how these "rule"-makers never say that you should only use full-stops in moderation, but you could just as easily slide from saying "use short sentences in moderation" to "having lots of full stops is a sign of too many short sentences" to "don't have lots of full stops". And before we know it, "Don't have lots of full stops" will be on someone's natty little list of "dos and don'ts for writers", and it'll be all over the net.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by EmmaD at 10:14 on 23 April 2013
    And bang on cue: Interview with a semi-colon, on one of the editing blogs, via the Society of Editors and Proof-readers

    http://tomgething.wordpress.com/2012/10/17/interview-with-a-semicolon/
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by Freebird at 13:23 on 23 April 2013
    Grrr, punctuation really gets me irate sometimes. I'm currently helping some primary students prepare for the new grammar/punctuation spelling test they now have to have, and they are spot on with everything.

    So it REALLY annoys me when there's a new columnist in our local paper who shoves comma splices in all over the place. I've only just learnt the correct term for them but to me they've always been just plain wrong. ANd now they're popping up all over the place in the historical novel I'm currently reading.

    e.g 'Their arms were thin as kindling, they looked half starved.'

    Surely a semi-colon would be better?

    But I'm prepared to be corrected by those of you who know a lot more about it than me....
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by EmmaD at 13:53 on 23 April 2013
    Surely a semi-colon would be better?


    I would have one - or perhaps a colon, as to me the second half feels like more of an elaboration/taking further, than a separate, equal half, if that makes any sense.

    Although as comma-spliced sentences go, I've read much worse.

    Someone commenting on my FB version of this link has just said:

    The eighteenth-century French writer, Antoine de Rivarol said: "Grammar is the art of lifting the difficulties out of a language; the lever must not be heavier than the burden."

    Which nails it perfectly for me. That's why working within the conventions matters - to make meaning work better - but also why juding everything by the level of "correctness" is missing the point: the conventions are the servants of meaning, not the masters.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by AlanH at 02:54 on 24 April 2013
    [quote]Their arms were thin as kindling, they looked half starved.'
    [quote]

    I would definitely use a semi-colon. The relationship between the two sentences needs it.

    I would also hyphenate 'half starved'. I know it makes it more idiomatic, but to not have it reduces the impact of starved by 50 per cent and means the subjects were typical of 50 per cent of humanity. That's not saying much.

    Anyone disagree? I'm curious.

    (I do have a bit of a tendency to hyphenate, although I believe 'no-one' is incorrect. I always use 'no one'.)

    I stand to be corrected, though.
  • Re: Semi colons - give them a miss?
    by EmmaD at 08:34 on 24 April 2013
    Yes, I'd hyphenate half-starved. Generally speaking, when you put two words together to work as a single adjective, you hyphenate:

    a long felt want (a desirable draught-excluder)

    vs

    a long-felt want (a desire you've had for a long time)

    I tend to find that would-be writers (not to mention the rest of the world) more often doesn't hyphenate where it should, than does where it shouldn't.

    <Added>

    Although I also tend to find that I make a muddle of tenses when I haven't had enough caffeine...
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