The second bite of the new Itchy Bite-sized series is nibbling at a much-despised, often confused and actually very useful and very simple punctuation mark: the semi-colon.
1) You can use a semi-colon to link two grammatically complete sentences, each saying its thing, when you want to suggest a closer connection than a full stop (= AmEng period) would suggest. It saves you ploddily spelling out that connection, and treats the reader as an adult, capable of intuiting it without help:
Anisha loved chocolate cake; she had asked for it at every birthday since she could talk.
(compare: Anne loved chocolate cake. She had asked for a bike for her birthday.)
Billy sleeps; Carol lies awake reading.
(compare: Billy sleeps. Carol is his wife.)
It was the last straw; she hit him.
(compare: It was Monday. She hit him.)
2) You can use a semi-colon in lists where you need commas for other jobs, or where each element of the list is quite long and there's a risk of things getting confusing:
Round the table sat Dame Nazneen Bakeoff, President of the Board of Trade; Josef, Duke of Wight; Alison Leadbeater, the funniest comedian since Bob Hope; and Conchita Wurms, who needs no introduction.
I speak French but I don't read it; Fola speaks Italian with a perfect accent; Giovanni speaks Russian and studies it at university; Miranda speaks only English, yet she is the one who loves travelling.
3) Anyone who tells you that semi-colons are pretentious probably doesn't know how to use them, because, y'know, they're just a bit of ink: why blame them? But many writers would say they don't have a place in dialogue, and I'd probably (though only probably) agree. All punctuation has two roles: articulating the meaning of the written sentence, and evoking the sound of how that meaning is expressed in speech. In dialogue the function of punctuation in evoking the sound of how speeches comes to the fore, but while commas and full stops are all about pauses and breaks and lifts in the voice, semi-colons are mostly about meaning, not sound.
For more about why and how semi-colons are so useful, click through to my full blog-post about them.
Image credit: Poema visual transitable en tres temps (Joan Brossa). via Wikimedia Commons
Itchy Bitesized is a series of short posts about all sorts of writing issues, from inspiration and process to craft, technique and the realities of the writing life. Many include links to fuller discussions of the topic elsewhere on the Itch. Click through here for an up-to-date listing of The Itchy Bitesized series.