In the 90s I worked as a probation officer. Every now and then, the government would introduce a new sentencing option, and we would have to work hard to stop the magistrates from using it. Or rather, using it inappropriately. There is something about novelty which makes a person go doolally. So it is with the semi-colon. To think that I might actually be able to use this strange fruit has made me do odd things. It hasn’t helped that anyone I’ve asked seems to be a bit uncertain about how to use it themselves.
The first time I encountered one was when I saw the proofs of my sister’s debut novel. She had put a pencil mark to a comma and written ‘;’. This was another country for a boy who barely used full stops. I was pretty convinced that being able to understand how to use semi-colons must be the mark of a true writer. I still not really sure how to use them.
In my recent editing clean-up of my second novel, I reduced the number of semi-colons from 666 (significant?) to under half that number. Mainly from overlong sentences that worked better when properly divided in the two sentences that made them up. This made it easier to read. Hoorah for the full stop.
So, for this post, and to make sure that I really understand them, I’m going to keep it to basics and rely on the Penguin Guide to Punctuation and Grammar for Grown-Ups by Fry and Kirtin (which is my current grammar bible). What follows is my own explanation to myself, so forgive me if it gets a bit teachy. Let’s start with a quiz from Fry and Kirtin. Replace some of the commas with semi-colons in the following sentences:
- Books by Ian McEwan include First Love, Last Rites, On Chesil Beach, Atonement, Solar.
- The lovers go upstage behind the tree, meanwhile, the jealous husband enters downstage left, with a gun…
- Sarah was an Archers addict, Lionel, however, would turn the radio off at the first note of the theme tune.
- The cast includes Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliet, Claire Danes, the Nurse, Miriam Margolyes, and Friar Laurence, Pete Postlethwaite.
- The spaghetti western trilogy consists of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
And you’ll find the answers at the end. But let’s have a look at the principles:
- Joining two sentences which are in some way related.
a) Put in before the joining word. Ok. Before I start this, it is worth going back briefly to commas. One of the many uses they have is to link sentences, particularly where the join is effected by a conjunction such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’, ‘because’, etc. So, rather than say: We really enjoyed our holiday. The location was perfect. I could join the two: We really enjoyed our holiday, and the location was perfect. Fair enough.
Notice that in that example the conjunction relates equally to both sides of the sentence. I could just as easily have written: The location was perfect, and we really enjoyed our holiday.
A semi-colon can also precede a linking word, but this time the words must only relate to one part of the sentence eg ‘however’, ‘nonetheless’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘meanwhile’. For example: The location was perfect; however, the hotel room smelt of rotting crabs, so we won’t be returning.
b) In place of a full stop or conjunction.
Sometimes, I might want to just imply the join between the sentences, without having to put in anything as definite as a full stop or a conjunction, giving it more of a flow: We really enjoyed our holiday; the location was perfect.
c) Suggesting that one part of the sentence implies something about the other.
I used to run a report writing course and the example I would give was: ‘Germany beat England 3-1; Sam went to sit in the shed.’ Implying that the result was why he went to sit in the shed. Unfortunately, one time I didn’t say ‘sit’. One of those training moments it is difficult to recover from.
d) Full sentences! The rule for semi-colons for each of these examples is that both parts must be sentences in their own right. So, Every night I am kept awake by one thing; the noise from next door, is not correct, as the second part is not a sentence.
- Making sense of commas. Let’s keep it brief. Look at this sentence:
At the supermarket I bought the following items: some apples, which I’ll probably ignore, some wine, for my neighbour, a box of matches, some sticky tape, which I’ve been meaning to get for some time, and tea.
At a certain point your brain starts to go ‘wha?’ because some parts relate to others, and some don’t. So, for clarity, I could upgrade a couple of the commas to semi-colons:
At the supermarket I bought the following items: some apples, which I’ll probably ignore; some wine, for my neighbour; a box of matches; some sticky tape, which I’ve been meaning to get for some time; and tea.
- Another one, which you could ignore. To quote Monty Python’s Australian Wine Sketch, ‘This is a bottle with a message in it. And the message is, ‘Beware.’ This is not a bottle for drinking. This is a bottle for laying down and avoiding.’ And I’ll tell you why. There is an exception to the they-have-to-be-full-sentences rule mentioned earlier. And this is where we go all Virginia Woolf. Sometimes, a sentence is so long, and contains so many commas, that a semi-colon is used to break it up and suggest a longer pause. A sign that one can rest awhile. Check out this blinder from Mrs Dalloway:
How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them, and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, ‘Musing among the vegetables?’
And I bet she pronounced that last word with four syllables.
It’s probably good to know that there are some writers that just don’t use them. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t, preferring full stops, capital letters and commas. Martin Amis only used one in Money, which probably doesn’t make him any more loveable.
To finish, here are the answers to the earlier quiz:
- Books by Ian McEwan include First Love, Last Rites; On Chesil Beach, Atonement, Solar.
- The lovers go upstage behind the tree; meanwhile, the jealous husband enters downstage left, with a gun…
- Sarah was an Archers addict; Lionel, however, would turn the radio off at the first note of the theme tune.
- The cast includes Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio; Juliet, Claire Danes; the Nurse, Miriam Margolyes; and Friar Laurence, Pete Postlethwaite.
- The spaghetti western trilogy consists of A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.