Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 4th, 2011

Squashing the semicolon

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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 Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I don’t like semicolons. I’ve always been conscious of avoiding them in my published fiction, but I’m not sure I realized the truly comical extent of my aversion until I did a few quick searches in Word. Here, then, are the results of—wait for it—my semicolonoscopy: The Icon Thief, a novel of over 100,000 words and half a million characters, contains a grand total of six semicolons, while its sequel, City of Exiles, which is about the same length, has exactly six as well, which implies that I’m holding disturbingly close to some invisible quota. And of the three novelettes I’ve published in Analog over the past few years, along with two more stories slated to appear in the next six months, there’s exactly one semicolon. (If you’re curious, it’s in “The Boneless One,” on page 88 of the November 2011 issue. A few choice revisions, and I could have called it “The Semicolonless One.”)

The really surprising discovery is that this seems to be a relatively recent development. “Inversus,” my first professionally published story, is something of an outlier: it came out in January/February 2004, more than four years before I began making sales on a regular basis, and it contains ten semicolons, or nearly the same number that I’ve since employed in two full novels. Over the last five years, then, as my overall productivity has increased, my use of semicolons has gone down drastically. In itself, the timing isn’t hard to understand: it wasn’t until I began writing for a living, and particularly after I wrote my first novel, that I began to develop a style of my own. And whoever this writer is, he seems to hate semicolons, at least when it comes to fiction. (For what it’s worth, I use semicolons slightly more often in my personal correspondence, as well as on this blog, but I still don’t especially care for them.)

And I’m not entirely sure why. If pressed, I’d say that my dislike of semicolons, and most other forms of punctuation aside from the comma and period, comes from my classical education, in which I spent years reading Latin authors who managed to convey meaning and rhythm through sentence structure alone. These days, writers have a world of possible punctuation at their disposal, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. One of the best things a writer can do, to build muscle, is to consciously deprive himself of a common tool, while developing other strategies to take its place. The semicolon is essentially a crutch for combining two sentences into one, for the sake of meaning or variety. By eschewing semicolons, I’ve forced myself to achieve these goals in other ways, revising sentences to have rhythm and clarity on the most fundamental level: in the arrangement of the words themselves.

But really, if I’m honest, I have to admit that it isn’t rational at all. Many writers have irrational dislikes of certain kinds of punctuation: George Bernard Shaw thought of apostrophes as “uncouth bacilli,” and James Joyce, as well as many of his pretentious imitators, disliked inverted commas, using a French- or Italian-style quotation dash to indicate dialogue. Other authors, such as Wodehouse and Beckett, have as much of an aversion to semicolons as I do. Such choices can be justified on stylistic grounds, but in my experience, such obsessive decisions are more often personal and idiosyncratic, the result of a writer’s customary isolation. After you’ve spent years of your life staring at the same stack of pages, it takes on an almost physical presence, like a view of your backyard, until such otherwise innocent features as ragged line breaks and ellipses, invisible to casual readers, start to drive you crazy. So if you like semicolons, please keep using them; I only wish that I could do the same.

Quote of the Day

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People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access.

Banksy

Written by nevalalee

November 4, 2011 at 7:46 am

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