See link below for a collection of advice gleaned from her letters. I particularly like the fact that she referred to people who were too obsessed with punctuation as ‘dull elves’. Try saying that the next time someone starts a discussion on the apostrophe. Also, she sums up everything about persistence by saying, ‘I am not at all in a humour for writing, I must write on till I am.’
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.
The second in an occasional series in which Dr Gapper examines a punctuation mark in the vain hope that he will stop sticking it everywhere in his writing. This time the comma. Or should I say, ‘This time, the comma’? To be honest, I don’t know. That’s why I am bringing this up.
James Thurber and the editor of the New Yorker are said to have had fights over commas for many years. JT (the original JT) hated them so much that he would apparently punctuate the colours of the flag: ‘red white and blue’. And at a certain point it is just to do with personal idiosyncrasy, suggesting a rhythm in which the writer would like the passage to be read.
Many books and websites give extensive guidance on the issue. I understand that, for the most part, commas are used for clarity. ‘My girl Bill’ is different to, ‘She’s my girl, Bill.’ Easy.
But none of these sources seem to answer the issues I have. For example if I see anything more than seven words unpunctuated I start to panic. (That sentence was like cold turkey.) Also, I have noticed that if I take a quarter breath while writing, I automatically stick a comma in (like that last one).
So have a look at the following examples from my previous posts or emails:
- The great thing is, she’s just started.
- If this doesn’t work for you, we’ll arrange a time when I get back.
- In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma.
- Like, what’s it doing after ‘Like’ in this sentence?
- This time, the comma.
How would you punctuate them? I took these examples to a comma expert (no really) who offered the following opinions:
- The great thing is, she’s just started. This is an example of the comma for efficient reading. So you don’t have to go back a second time to read it in order for it to make sense. (Though she was not happy with the dangling ‘is’.)
- If this doesn’t work for you, we’ll arrange a time when I get back. Again, efficient reading, without the comma, it would read ‘you we’, which could cause confusion.
- In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma. This comma is not needed, it should be read as one flowing sentence.
- Like, what’s it doing after ‘Like’ in this sentence? Yes, ok. It is being used to introduce an idea, like a sort of mini-colon.
- This time, the comma. Again, efficient reading. Having the words ‘this time the comma’ could be confusing.
At which point I would like to quote The Social Network: ‘Ann, punch me in the face will you?’ Because it can all get a bit nit-picky and there are probably better things to do with our lives. But if you have your own opinions do join in the debate. I say this knowing that it is usually the cue for the distant sound of wind and the sight of tumbleweed on the horizon.
Next time, Dr Gapper will examine his own use of the semi-colon. Book your holidays now.
The first in an occasional series in which Dr Gapper examines a punctuation mark in the vain hope that he will stop sticking them everywhere in his writing. Plus, if ‘Punctuation: Ellipsis’ doesn’t get people flocking to this blog, what will?
For clarity, the ellipsis is this little fella…
When I did a recent proof check of my last novel I found 197 ellipses. How does anyone get 197 x three dots into such a small space? It was mainly in dialogue. People trailing off… There’s a lot of that. So I stopped them doing so.
The second thing was that I was using them where a character did something while speaking, eg ‘I was going to put another ellipsis in this paragraph…’ Jim wafted an artistic hand into the air ‘…but then I decided not to.’ I was so shocked by the number of them in my novel that I looked ellipsis up online and found that this could be handled with a comma. For example, ‘I wonder sometimes if I should use such flamboyant gestures,’ Jim raised the other hand up to meet the first, ‘people might think I looked foolish.’
The third change was to stop using them when people were being interrupted. Eg:
‘You look like an idiot, Jim. Could I su…’
‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ Unable to gesture with his arms, Jim nodded furiously at his friend.
Apparently, interruptions are indicated with a dash.
‘I’m not, Jim. I just thou–‘
‘Did you? I’m going out!’ Jim stormed out through open doorway, knocking his wrists against the top of the frame.
I realise I lost a lot of people in the first paragraph. But if you have stuck with me, all of this editing meant that I got the ellipsis count down from 197 to 40. Which is still a lot, but not as many as there were.
In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma. Like, what’s it doing following ‘episode’ in that last sentence, or after ‘Like’ in this one? I also take requests.