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November 27, 2011 / benrovik

Semi-colons: Friend; or Foe?

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Take a look at a little morsel from our mutual friend Charles Dickens:

Quite satisfied, he closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his cravat; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap; and sat down before the fire to take his gruel.

And another from Mister Ernest Hemingway:

He took all his pain and what was left of his strength and his long gone pride and he put it against the fish’s agony and the fish came over onto his side and swam gently on his side, his bill almost touching the planking of the skiff and started to pass the boat, long deep, wide, silver and barred with purple and in-terminable in the water.

Dickens feasts on semi-colons.  They are ambrosia to him.  If it were true that he was paid by the word for his books*, then I’m convinced that he got time-and-a-half for each semi-colon.

Hemingway (though he does use them sometimes) would much rather go with the run-on sentence and stick a bunch of ‘ands’ where another writer might use, I don’t know, punctuation.

What’s a young writer to do?  Are semi-colons the devil?  Are they not the devil?

I don’t think they’re the devil, and I like the look and feel they can create.  If they’re a little old-fashioned, well, I’m writing steampunk.  Putting a patina of old-fashioned-ness on everything is part of the idea.

Here’s a semi-colon laden snippet from Mechanized Wizardry:

Lundin coughed from the incense, and frowned as he saw a series of four white disks hanging from the beams above the Viscount’s table; more wizardly décor, no doubt.  He didn’t give the wizard another glance as he walked to the commander.  Lundin understood perfectly well the need for ‘protective spells,’ since the peasants theoretically had some magic on their side in this campaign; but it was still damned hard to take the moaning Mr. Jailrat seriously.

(PS You know it’s your blog when you get to excerpt your own writing alongside Dickens and Hemingway)

In my head, here’s how it works.  ‘more wizardly decor, no doubt’ is a comment on the preceding description, like a theatrical aside.  It’s an independent thought, but so closely connected that anything bigger than a semi-colon might get in the way.  The second semi-colon, before ‘but it was still damned hard,’ seems to me to fit the pattern of these acceptable examples on the sainted Wikipedia:

Everyone knows he is guilty of committing the crime; of course, it will never be proven.

It can occur in both melodic and harmonic lines; however, it is subject to certain restraints.

Of course, Wikipedia goes on to describe that usage as ‘the least common’ and ‘usually confined to academic texts.’  Well, darn.

Basically, I think the semi-colon is fun, and a way to add variety to the look and feel of a paragraph.  I try not to throw it in everywhere that a comma would work just fine; but, from time to time, I find it appealing.

I just checked, and apparently there are 172 semi-colons in the most recent version of Mechanized Wizardry.  That’s about two per page in the .doc.  Huh… seems like a lot; until you hear that there are more than 3,000 commas! *spit take*

You know, I’m fairly comfortable with that ratio of semi-colons to regular, non-polarizing punctuation. I’m certain there are semi-colons I could trim out without any meaningful change to the feel of a scene, and I’m sure there are occasions in my books when the usage is outright wrong, in the sense of creating awkwardness or marring clarity.  I’m eager and grateful to have savvy readers point those mistakes out to me, and to mend my ways.  I just thought that I’d take a moment to show the funny little punctuation mark some love.

SC 4 life!! 😉

*UC Santa Cruz plays mythbuster on that yarn about Dickens, by the way

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