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Is using semi-colons pretentious?

To add a little spice to the season of goodwill, may I propose that anyone who shouts at you that it's pretentious to use semi-colons in fictional prose is, themselves, being pretentious? As I was saying in Picked up a Bad Book? Think about it at as a Good One, if you want to widen as well as improve your craft it's good practice to assume that professional writers have good reasons for doing what appears to you to be a bad thing - and then ask yourself what that good reason might be. As my favourite handy punctuation site says (University of Bristol's Improve Your Writing site):

The semicolon is a hugely powerful punctuation mark. Getting it right will not only impress your tutors and future employers, it will allow you to express your ideas and opinions with more subtlety and precision than ever before. The good news is that it is simple and easy to use and should take you no more than a few minutes to master.

And although tutors and employers may not be your problem, subtlety and precision are exactly what creative writers, too, should be working towards every day of their writing life. So let's first just remind ourselves what a semi-colon's job actually is1to join two grammatically complete sentences2 which are more closely connected in meaning that a full stop would imply. 

Anne loved chocolate cake. She had asked for a bike for her birthday. 
Anne loved chocolate cake; she had asked for it at every birthday since she could talk.

Billy sleeps. Carol is his wife. but Billy sleeps; Carol lies awake reading.

It was Monday. She hit him. but It was the last straw; she hit him.

So you could always use a full stop in the same place, and be just as correct; you use a semi-colon when you actively want to show that there's a closer connection. Of course, you could always use some other kind of connector:

Billy sleeps but Carol lies awake reading. or Billy sleeps and Carol lies awake reading.

It was the last straw, so she hit him. or It was the last straw, yet she hit him.

Notice how those connectors (technically, co-ordinating conjunctions) explain the nature of the connection, as will any word that you join phrases with: and, but, nor, yet, so, however, because, and so on. Often a semi-colon is the most fluent and economical way to express the link from one thing/idea/thought to the next: no careful, explainy, clunky explanations, no extra words needed. 

Even more interestingly, sometimes you don't want to explain how the two connect. With Billy sleeps; Carol lies awake reading, it's up to the reader's mind to create the connection: are the two in harmony - it suits them both? Or is it setting up a sense of conflict, friction, between the two characters-in-action? Indeed, I'd light-heartedly argue that using a semi-colon is a kind of Showing, evoking or implying something, when a using a conjunction is a kind of Telling: explaining and making explicit. You are showing that idea A leads to idea B, but not telling us: it's for us to pick up the implicit, and make it explicit. And, as I was exploring in this post about "desirable difficulty", setting things up so that the reader has to bring the implicit up to explicitness and is thus involved in creating the story, makes the story seem more vivid and more "their own". As Bristol say: 

Using the semicolon to separate the two clauses has allowed us to imply the relationship between the two without stating it explicitly. This can be quite a powerful tool in allowing/encouraging your reader to make implicit connections. As the reader is involved in the development of the idea, it may well be more persuasive than simply stating the causal relationship between the two clauses.

Notice, too, that if you have committed a comma splice - joining two complete sentences with a comma - it's very probably because you instinctively felt that a full stop was too full a break between the two. Unfortunately, a comma is not enough of a break, and teachers, agents and editors are likely to spot it; a nice little semi-colon is a delightfully easy solution which means you don't have to re-write a word.

"But what about semi-colons in dialogue?" is usually the next question, and it's a very good one. I know more than one senior editor, and plenty of writers I trust, who would say that you shouldn't use semi-colons in dialogue, and on the whole I agree.  A semi-colon is mainly about how the meaning of two grammatical complete sentences is related: it's punctuation all about sense and logic. But punctuation has two, sometimes contradictory, roles in writing: to help articulate the meaning, and to evoke expression of the sort that would be there if the words were spoken. Even narrative prose always has one foot in voice, as it were, so punctuation is always doing some expressive work, as well as articulating meaning.

In dialogue, punctuation tends to be working much harder in its expressive job. A semi-colon might tell an actor to understand the two sentences as closely connected, but on the whole the sort of end-of-sentence pause and lift would be the same whether it's given on the page with a semi-colon, or a full stop. So if one of my characters said two things that were so closely linked that a full stop was too stoppy, and I'd rather die than use a comma-splice, I'd probably use a dash, because that's the kind of half-pause that one would in speech: dashes are all about expression and not much about meaning. So, never say never (and never say always) but, on the whole, I wouldn't use semi-colons in dialogue. The exception would be if I actively wanted to evoke someone who spoke in extremely logical and well-ordered sentences, or was reading a speech.

But oh, my goodness, I use them plenty in the rest of my fiction. Which doesn't mean you have to, of course, but "pretentious"? I can only imagine that those who call them pretentious don't actually know how to use a semi-colon well, and therefore assume that anyone who does use them is simply trying to look clever. Which, as with most insults, tells me more about the insulter than about the insultee. 

On which note I shall cast off my grump, and wish all my dear blog readers a very Happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Brumalia, Dongzhi, Korochun, Sanghamitta, Shalako, Yaldā, Yule, Ziemassvētki (ancient Latvia, since you ask) or other festival-of-light-based holiday of your choice. May you have a rest from writing, or a writing binge, or simply a few chances to catch some delicious ideas for stories and press them into a particularly delightful notebook ... And see you on the other side.


1 For the sake of completeness, let me remind you - you know it really - that the other use of a semi-colon is in a list. Normally you'd use commas, but if the separate phrases are too long, or contain their own commas, a semi-colon keeps things clear: Sitting at the table were Alicia Blossom, the famous trumpet-player; the soprano Dame Lashley Attic; Sir Stephen Dummy, lately retired from the Berlin Postamatic; and, my favourite of the whole group, the pianist Murray Mint.

2 You know what a grammatically complete sentence is: one with a main verb

  • I sleep. He lies awake, reading. (not He awake, reading.)
  • She hit him. It was the only time she hit him. (not The only time she hit him.)
  • He is loved by her. (not Loved by her.)
  • Suddenly, they will horrify the guests by brandishing a carving knife. (not Suddenly brandishing a carving knife.)