Semicolons: A rant with pictures


I have a love/hate relationship with the semicolon. To be specific, the semicolon with which I am in this relationship I not the semicolon that acts as a boss-comma.  The boss-comma semicolon performs admirably the function of making clear lists of phrases that embrace internal commas. I’m fine with this usage. This semicolon is invisible to me – as all good uses of punctuation should be.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

No. My turbulent relationship is with the semicolon used to join clauses. Used correctly, it joins independent clauses. Used often to join up any damned fragments the writer wants to mash together.

I’ve recently joined a critique group. This week the pieces submitted were so this with semicolons, I thought I was reading a Java class.

Side note: Has anyone ever tried writing a narrative within the  strictures of a programming language? Would it be fascinating or dull to read?

Obtrusive and irritating are the nicest things I can find to say about the parade of semicolons in these pieces. The nib of my red pen was worn to a nub. My attitude to those who use semicolons can be summed up in the following diagram:


  • Use too many semicolons – you look pretentious
  • Use them incorrectly – you look like an idiot
  • Use semicolons incorrectly all over your writing – you look like a pretentious idiot

While the boundaries of correct usage are solid, the boundaries of what constitutes too many semicolons are blurry. It depends entirely on how good a writer you are and whether these usages are not only correct, but appropriate.

That’s the hate out of the way. As for the love… When I see a writer use a semicolon for its intended purpose, in a sentence that it perfectly fits and enhances, it makes me happy. It gives me a level of craft to aspire to (because I’m definitely not yet in the class of confident and stylish semicolon users).

Until then, this is the advice I follow and I urge folks to do the same:

Use them correctly; use them sparingly; use them elegantly.

Editorial Style Sheets

Last year I went on an Introduction to Copy-Editing course run by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

It was a great course and one of the most useful things that I took away from it was the use of an editorial style sheet.

This is a sheet where you record all of your decisions about spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, typography and specific words or terms. It is more descriptive than prescriptive.  You write down the decisions that you made at the point you come across them in your edit and then later in the manuscript when you’re faced with the same style decision again you have a record of what you did earlier.

I found it extremely useful in my edit of Heartweed to ensure consistency among irregular verb forms like leapt/leaped, leant/leaned. I’m a horror for alternating between the irregular and regular forms in both speech and writing depending on the context. With leant and leaned I’ve notice that I’ll use leaned if I want the action to seem slower, but leant in the rest of cases.

Here’s an example of an empty style sheet:

(I was going to show you my live Heartweed one, but it was scruffy and illegible to all but me.)

The fields are:

  • Author
  • Title (both self-explanatory)
  • Spelling
    This section is where you record general decisions about spelling, rather than specific words. For example, in my Heartweed style sheet I have “ise” and “wards”, indicating that I’ve gone with British conventions on words like specialise/specialize and towards/toward.
  • Numbers
    This section perhaps not as useful for fiction, but for editing non-fiction it is key. How do you represent numbers? As words or digits? For example, in my previous job the house style was to write out all numbers up to ten and from then on use figures (11, 12, etc.).
  • Punctuation
    How are you using quotation marks throughout? Doubles on the outside and singles on the inside in speech. Singles or doubles for ‘scare quotes’? What kind of dashes are you using? Ems? Or ens set off by spaces? Three dots or the ellipsis character? These are all decisions that I consciously made and then enforced throughout my manuscript in the edit.
  • Typography
    What font face are you using for different parts of the text. In my style sheet I wrote “bold, indent for texts and email” and “italic for remembered speech”. Both of those happen infrequently enough in my novel that it was useful to have an at-a-glance refresher when I was going through and doing the markup.
  • Alphabet section
    The section at the bottom is 20 boxes – one for each letter, with some doubling or trebling up (IJK, PQ, UV, XYZ). In each of these boxes I put words or terms that begin with the appropriate letter that I have had to make a decision about. It’s like your own dictionary. For example, in Heartweed I made the decision to write “Faerie” for the land, “faerie” for the name of the creature, and “fae” as the adjectival form. When to capitalise “Gentry” and “Shadows” was also captured in the appropriate boxes in this section of the sheet.

The good part is that now I have a style sheet for Heartweed that I can apply to the next book in the series, to keep consistency between novels as well as between chapters.