Semi-colons; No Place for Them in Fiction?

Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve...
Kurt Vonnegut speaking at Case Western Reserve University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week, as part of a critters critique, I passed on some comments I’ve received from many critters and from a few professionals as well: don’t use semi-colons in fiction. Per critters guidelines, I didn’t present it as a rule, more as a “here’s what response I get when use them.”

You see, I love semi-colons. They are a natural form of expression for me.

Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut had to say about them in A Man without a Country, according to The Quotations Page. I’ve seen it referenced many times so it’s probably an accurate quote.

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.

Kurt was entitled to his opinions and he was no doubt on firmer ground than I am but that seems overly dismissive to me. Semi-colons have a recognized role in non-fiction. While they may not be the convention in fiction, they clearly mean “soft end of sentence, following sentence related to previous one.” Or sometimes, they are used in place of a comma between clauses if the clauses contain a lot commas for other reasons (and-lists, multiple adjectives, etc.)

After passing on my wisdom, such as it is, in my critique, I thought I’d double-check my current novel manuscript for them. Again, I’m kind of fond of them, but why buck convention? It’s a style thing that seems to rub editors the wrong way. It’s not like they are absolutely necessary (the semi-colons, not the editors).

So I fire up Scrivener and find that ‘fond’ doesn’t really begin to describe my preference for them. They were everywhere, not every scene but probably two-thirds of them, and in many scenes, multiple places. And this is after I had already made a decision to avoid them before I started my last revision. Ugh. Imagine if I hadn’t decide to purge them already 🙂

For the record, Scrivener’s global search is kind of lame: you get a folder of the scenes containing the search phrase. Within a scene, you can search for next occurrence but to go to the next scene, you need to click on it in the search results folder. Worse, if you do a ‘next’ in the search pop-up and there are no more instances in the current scene, you have to clear an annoying pop-up warning before you can do anything else.

That makes an irritating task all the more tedious because removing semi-colons is not trivial. Sometimes it is no more than replacing with a period and capitalizing the next letter, which doesn’t exactly roll off my fingers on the keyboard. But often, more substantial re-work is required to avoid the construct: turning the sentence pair into a compound sentence or even re-writing the pair entirely.

I’m about two-thirds finished after several hours. A funny thing has happened as I purge semi-colons, though. While I don’t agree with Kurt that they have no meaning, I am starting to truly appreciate why they aren’t typically used in fiction because I think my semi-colon-less prose is better than it’s predecessor. I’ve removed a few unnecessary sentences in some places. In more, I’ve reworked the sentence into something that seems more interesting to me.

Now, if I can only avoid putting them in my drafts in the first place, I’ll be all set. It’s tough: I don’t notice them any more than a comma or period these days. It’s probably a manifestation of my engineer-think.

How about you? What’s your opinion on semi-colons?

19 thoughts on “Semi-colons; No Place for Them in Fiction?

  1. There have been semicolons in the last three novels I’ve read (all published within the past 5 years). Evidently the editors at Tor, Orbit and DAW didn’t get the memo about semicolons not being allowed in fiction 🙂 Unless you are using them incorrectly or excessively, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I suspect it’s a voice and style thing.

    1. That’s good to hear 🙂 I think I’ll steer clear of them, though. In the end, they aren’t necessary and they do annoy some editors and readers. I remember a review of His Majesty’s Dragons that complained about that.

    1. Go semi-colons! Well, it’s all advice (as opposed to hard and fast rules). I had a published author, whom I respect, tell me the NY editors don’t tend to like them. She didn’t say I couldn’t use them, just warned me I might get some pushback. In the end, seems easier to stay away from them. Plus my current exercise is starting to convince me that maybe it reads better without them (for me, at least).

      Thanks for the reblog!

  2. Heidi C. Vlach

    I think it’s absolutely nonsensical that some editors and writers hate semicolons so much. I can understand the argument that they sometimes make a work seem stuffy or stilted, and they’re not to be used in every sentence. But that’s still no reason for a blanket ban. Personally, I’ve always taken an anti-semicolon editorial order as a prompt to get a new editor.

    1. You may be right on the editors overreacting. As I said, I like them, and also think Kurt’s comment on them, while catchy, is foolish. But at this point, I’d rather write them out. Besides, I’m liking my prose better without them. I think I was getting a little lazy with them. Of course, I had resolved to do without them some time ago and they seem to creep back in.

      I do know they bother readers, too, though. I’ve seen them called out in reviews.

  3. I use them all the time. Using them “correctly…” Eh. In 95% of modern fiction, writers use periods to separate sentence fragments– or worse, commas. Neither is technically correct, but, hey, it’s convention. If I feel the situation calls for it, I’d rather use a semicolon to separate clauses than a misplaced period or comma.

    And besides: the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever read was not to listen to anyone’s advice.

    Good post, M.Q.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m with you on seeing a place for them but I guess I’m a wimp: I don’t want to deal with those who don’t like them. I try to accommodate most critique feedback. If I can rework something without changing anything that matters to me, why not? They took the trouble to mention it. It must have mattered to them.

  4. How have I never come across this rule? For better or worse, I cut my teeth on nonfiction, so I sometimes miss these subtle differences. Semicolons are pretty useful in nonfiction, but I can see the point about flow. Though it seems arbitrary to eliminate them completely. Appreciate the tip.

    1. I wouldn’t call it a rule but it does seem to excite some folks, including editors and not in a good way 🙂 I decided to eliminate them just to avoid problems with those who don’t like them but in the process, I’ve found I like my prose better without them. I can tell they were serving a purpose because removing them isn’t just a matter of turning a semi-colon to a period but I think it reads better (to me) rephrased to not need one.

  5. Yeah, sometimes we don’t see our own mannerisms until they’re pointed out to us. But if you really like semicolons, I think you should still keep a few in the places where they have the most impact.

  6. Good article.

    I avoid them in storytelling because I never see them and it just feels “wrong” to me somehow to use one. They feel almost technical to me, like using a bulleted or numbered list would. I would never use one of those and a semicolon, or even a colon, feels the same. A dash, however, does not.

    I do think that rarity makes them stand out when used.

    Like you, I have also noticed that sentences seem better written without one, and all of the things I mentioned can be avoided in favor of a smooth sentence. This makes it a skill issue to me, as well, so I tend to see a semicolon in storytelling as a lack of writing skill even if that isn’t really fair.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Given my own fondness for them, I don’t mind writers using them but for myself, between liking my prose better without them and not wanting to annoying a key editor, I’m trying to do without 🙂

    1. Thanks! I’m so fond of them I’ve decided to try to purge them. They creep in too much 🙂 Plus, after comparing pre- and post- semi-colon, I like the semi-colon free one’s better.

      1. LOL! As long as it is about the language on the page, and not the aesthetics on the page, purge away! (It ‘looks’ bad matters much less than ‘it reads awkwardly’ – most people will not notice the look, they will trip up on the read…) You see an improvement. Damn. Don’t make me look back over my manuscript at semi-colons…..

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