Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Squashing the semicolon

with 4 comments

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.

4 Responses

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  1. I used to think semi-colones were ugly. I didn’t use them much and, when I did, I didn’t use them properly. Once I learned what they were for, I stuck them in on occasion. Then I decided they weren’t ugly. If the font-size was big enough, they looked like stick men turned sideways: head and part of an arm. I started using them more.

    At one point I did a find-and-replace in Word on a bunch of novels I found in digital form just to see how many semi-colons the authors used. Newer writers generally used less. Michael Connelly (Lincoln Lawyer) and Dan Brown (The Da VInci Code) came in at 4900 and 2534 words / semi-colon. Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End) and Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls) were sparse semi-colonizers, too: 1109, 1054. Then there was the middle bunch: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen King, George Orwell, Zadie Smith, Harper Lee—as random as it gets. And the writers who used the most semi-colons were Salman Rushdie (63 words / semi-colon in Midnight’s Children), Virginia Woolf (69 in Orlando), Mark Twain (71 in Huckleberry Finn.) Ray Bradbury, Ayn Rand, William Faulkner and Philip K. Dick were also heavy users. The average was 892 words / semi-colon.

    Looking back, I don’t know what the results told me, other than that I didn’t read much contemporary fiction. My enthusiasm for the semi-colon has waned since then, but I still use ’em and I still go back and stick them in places where, while writing, I thought a comma did fine. I can justify them more easily in non-fiction, where they do help with forcing a structure onto the reader, than in fiction, where I’ve caught myself thinking, “God, does this make me sound pretentious?”

    Sometimes I hold onto them precisely because they’re a dying breed. When I open a novel published before 1950 and see a page full of semi-colons, it makes me smile.

    Pacze Moj

    November 4, 2011 at 3:45 pm

  2. Wow—that list of frequencies is fascinating! I was tempted to do something similar myself, but didn’t have the chance, so thanks so much for the legwork. It would be very interesting to see how average rates have fallen over time…


    November 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm

  3. Dear Alec,

    I won’t pretend to be any good at writing, but I have tried. For a long time I used the semicolon unthinkingly, and without getting a permit. A visit from the punctuation police would have done me good. Neither full stop (‘period’), comma nor colon, it became a sort of ugly hybrid, being used more from lack of thought than by active choice.

    >> One of the best things a writer can do, to build muscle, is to consciously deprive himself of a common tool.

    Too much reading of writing books has lead me to relentlessly notice passive voice, and particularly the word ‘was’. And when I (try to) write fiction I ‘deprive’ myself of it. Your article, and something I saw written in the ‘common problems’ section of a magazine’s submission guidelines (essentially, ‘most people think they know how to use semicolons. They don’t.’) will push me to not only search for ‘was’ and ‘were’ in my text, but also for semicolons. (I also fight against ‘had’. I think I must be crazy.) (Clearly I do not fight hard enough against parentheses.) Since my writing fails on more fundamental things (like decent plot, character motivation and such) this is not proving helpful!

    Other punctuation:I think novels should make more use of bulleted lists. It could save a lot of saggy middle sections.



    Darren Goossens

    November 6, 2011 at 5:08 am

  4. @Darren: I can think of entire short stories that would have been more readable as a few pages of bullet points!

    I think the practice of avoiding semicolons (or the passive voice, for that matter) is less important for its own sake than as a kind of arbitrary, but valuable, discipline. It’s something like writing in meter: it forces you to move past the first, obvious answer and seek out alternative solutions, which can only be good for a writer. (And when you do use a semicolon, or the passive voice—both of which have their place—it will be for a good reason.)


    November 6, 2011 at 9:35 am

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