Language Skills For Clarity And Subtlety: Love The Semicolon

Here’s another post on language skills.

This time, let’s look at semicolons.

Basically, a semicolon connects two (or more) independent clauses in a sentence. Here’s a good roundup on how, when, and why to use semicolons from Grammar Girl.

Using semicolons aids clarity. They help you to convey shades of meaning to your readers.

Language skills: semicolons help you to convey shades of meaning

Let’s say you’re writing fiction. You write:

Her car stuttered. Then died.

You could also write: her car stuttered, and died. Or: her car stuttered; it died.

Which is correct? It’s a stylistic choice. Everything depends on the meaning you want to convey to readers. Whether you use a full stop, a comma, or a semicolon to connect closely-related thoughts in a sentence depends the effect you want.

Hilary Mantel is a wonderful stylist. From her amazing novel, Wolf Hall:

Liz does a bit of silk-work. Tags for the seals on documents; fine net cauls for ladies at court. She has two girl apprentices in the house, and an eye on fashion; but she complains, as always, about the middlemen, and the price of thread.

Firstly, notice Cromwell’s voice: he’s dismissive of his wife’s business: “a bit of silk-work”.

Also, notice the semicolon in the third sentence: “She has two girl apprentices in the house, and an eye on fashion; but she complains, as always, about the middlemen, and the price of thread.”

By using a semicolon, Ms Mantel conveys the sense of Liz as a confident and competent businesswoman, balancing the needs of a successful business. (Subtly, she also conveys that Cromwell’s a patronizing ass.)

On the other hand, without the semicolon: “She has two girl apprentices in the house, and an eye on fashion. But she complains, as always, about the middlemen, and the price of thread.

If Ms Mantel had used a full stop rather than a semicolon, she would give weight to Liz’s complaints about business matters: now Liz appears anxious, rather than competent.

You can use semicolons in many ways; they’re especially useful for lists, and for temporal matters (anything related to time, see below.)

Semicolons give equal weight to elements of a list (useful in many ways)

When you use semicolons in a list, it helps you to give readers a sense of several things happening simultaneously.

In Silken Prey, by John Sandford, three members of a household are engrossed in personal concerns, without paying much attention to each other:

“Letty was talking about a fashion-forward girl who’d worn a tiara to high school, in a kind of make-or-break status move; Weather was reading a Times review about some artist who’d spent five years doing a time-lapse movie of grass growing and dying; and Baby Gabrielle was throwing oatmeal at the refrigerator.”

Semicolons are valuable in fiction; they help you to convey emotion, as well as meaning. In the above clip, the narrator is Lucas Davenport. Weather is his wife. How does Lucas feel about his family?

So, semicolons are immensely useful, but are they pretentious?

Language skills: are semi-colons “pretentious”? (Giggle)

A wonderful post from This Itch of Writing about pretentiousness and semicolons:

… may I propose that anyone who shouts at you that it’s pretentious to use semi-colons in fictional prose is, themselves, being pretentious?

Yes, indeed.


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