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Semicolons Are Wrong?

OK, I had to create this poll. I really had to. An author on Twitter said she doesn’t think there’s a place for semicolons in modern fiction: “When editors put them in character’s dialogue, it is like a reading speed bump to me. Seems unnatural.”

I’m flabbergasted. I’m vacillating between speechless, sputtering, and ranting at my husband. Don’t let my reaction bias you. Tell me what you really think (and if you vote no, please tell me why in the comments).

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56 Comments so far (Add 1 more)

  1. Should read: “…why shouldn’t sentences…”

    1. Debra on June 6th, 2010 at 12:27 PM
  2. People SPEAK in semi colons so why should dialogue be written with them?!? Often, however, a comma is placed where the semicolon belongs. This is becoming more and more common in these days of non-prescriptive writing.

    2. Debra on June 6th, 2010 at 12:26 PM
  3. Why shouldn’t dialogue be punctuated correctly? If a character utters a sentence that requires a semicolon, then the semicolon should be there. I would find it more of a speed bump to read a sentence that was incorrectly punctuated–that always takes my focus away from the content and makes me think about the grammatical error instead. It might be more fair to say that most real people don’t use long or complicated sentences when they speak, so if semicolons are popping up a lot in dialogue it’s a signal that the dialogue itself is unnatural. But the problem would be the badly written dialogue itself, not something caused by semicolon use, or to be fixed by their removal.

    3. Susan M on September 26th, 2009 at 6:31 PM
  4. What the hell kind of conversations are y’all having that you don’t use semicolons? Perchance you need to spend more time with witty, urbane storytellers; clearly you’re missing out.

    4. Janet Reid on September 25th, 2009 at 7:00 AM
  5. Semicolons are not essential. They provide a shade of meaning through collocation generally absent in these times.

    5. Andrew on September 24th, 2009 at 4:52 PM
  6. my ex-boyfriend definitely speaks with semi-colons. If I was writing fictional dialogue like he talks, it would have semi-colons.

    6. bethany on September 24th, 2009 at 10:23 AM
  7. Read the following out loud:

    Semi-colons, like any other punctuation, are important; they imply intonation in dialogue.

    Semi-colons, like any other punctuation, are important, they imply intonation in dialogue.

    Semi-colons, like any other punctuation are important. They imply intonation in dialogue.

    I can hear a difference.

    7. Jean on September 24th, 2009 at 8:27 AM
  8. A speed bump! I see it as the opposite, a great bridge that keeps the flow going better than a period or a comma that causes a pause.
    Em dashes are for interrupted dialogue- not the same at all.

    8. Susan James on September 24th, 2009 at 8:26 AM
  9. An em-dash is no substitute for a semicolon. An em-dash denotes a break in thought, a separation. A semicolon implies two thoughts are more connected then they would otherwise seem.

    To say “no character speaks with semicolons” is to say “I have a limited imagination and all my characters seem like cookie-cutters of each other.” Think about the fastidious grandfather, or the effortlessly elegant debutant. Do you seriously only have fast-and-loose characters with no foils, even among the minor players? If so, your writing needs more than just a lesson in punctuation.

    9. Claire on September 24th, 2009 at 7:27 AM
  10. I love semicolons! I actually just wrote a blog post (in honor of today being National Punctuation Day) on the awesome nature of semicolons:


    10. Miriam on September 24th, 2009 at 7:26 AM
  11. Semicolons are wonderful! I use them less in dialog and more in narrative text when I type, but I definitely use them. I think people need to learn how to use semicolons correctly, and then maybe they won’t misunderstand them anymore!

    11. Amanda on September 24th, 2009 at 7:25 AM
  12. What’s wrong with the semi-colon? I love semicolons; they are my favorite punctuation mark.

    I’m not sure if I’ve used a semicolon in dialogue before, but I don’t think it’s wrong or improper to do so. It would work really well in formal, precise speech.

    Oh, now I want to add a character to my story that uses semicolons in their dialogue. What fun!

    12. ella144 on September 24th, 2009 at 7:06 AM
  13. I can’t believe anyone would ever oppose the semicolon. Every punctuation mark exists for a reason. Some are more common than others, but each one has its own purpose and reason for being.

    To me, writing without semicolons, or any other punctuation mark, simplifies dialogue to the point that it becomes dull and repetitive. I want a variety of simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences when I read fiction. It adds variety to the read just as changes in the plot and dialogue do.

    To say that a punctuation mark has become useless is ignorant at best. To ban it from someone’s work goes beyond ignorance and into the realm of near illiteracy. In fact, I would argue the person wanting to ban the semicolon has never grasped nor understood its usage, and probably can’t read a sentence that has multisyllabic words.

    I had better stop now; otherwise, I might explode.

    13. @thegrammarnazi on September 24th, 2009 at 6:45 AM
  14. A critiquer recently told me never to use semi-colons. Ever. I was gobsmacked. It was one of the sillier criticisms I’ve ever received.

    I don’t use them much in dialogue–tend to prefer the em-dash, or comma splices for a more natural feel, but I do use semi-colons in the narrative. Useful beasties, they are.

    14. BHS on September 24th, 2009 at 6:02 AM
  15. I agree – they seem out of place in modern dialogue, where freer punctuation tends to be used: dashes, dots… On the other hand, editors shouldn’t replace them with commas!

    “I came in at six; I came in at eight; I came back again at twelve. She wasn’t there.”

    15. Adrian on September 24th, 2009 at 1:25 AM
  16. If semicolons are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

    I am a professional technical writer, and I will not give up semicolons until they are pried from my cold, dead hands.

    16. Pat on September 23rd, 2009 at 11:12 PM
  17. I don’t think your survey question allowed for enough options. I would have said that semi-colons are a-okay in fiction but that they seem awkward and unnecessary in dialogue. No one speaks a semi-colon. Seems like unnecessary overreaching or editorializing from the narrator.

    17. Kate on September 23rd, 2009 at 8:31 PM
  18. In live speech, intonation indicates a pause or a full stop in expression. In written dialog a pause can surely be represented with a semicolon.

    18. Deb on September 23rd, 2009 at 7:40 PM
  19. Abandon the semicolon? Hell; no!

    19. Mark on September 23rd, 2009 at 7:35 PM
  20. I love semicolons. When they are used properly, they are beautiful things! I don’t believe I would ever use one in dialogue. I would use a dash.

    20. Zoe Doe on September 23rd, 2009 at 7:33 PM
  21. I think a “reading speed bump” that occurs in a sentence of speech is also known as a pause, which people naturally do when they speak. The difference between a semicolon pause and a comma pause is that the semicolon helps translate the context of the dialog to the reader, suggesting that the phrase after the semicolon is related to the phrase before it, something that may or may not be obvious when you’re lacking spoken inflection.

    While we’re picking on reading speedbumps, what about em dashes and ellipses? For every editor or writer out there who puts in a bunch of semicolons, there are at least three or four others who dash, ellipses and parentheses their way through an otherwise perfectly normal paragraph.

    Overarching rules like “never use semicolons in fiction” will just make writers with low confidence even less confident during the writing process. And what’s the real argument, anyway? That semicolons are pretentious? It’s hard to argue that punctuation is pretentious, especially when it’s used in the correct context.

    21. Elaine on September 23rd, 2009 at 7:13 PM
  22. Semicolons are fine as long as they are used correctly. And also not overused. But to not use them at all is not a good option, unless you don’t need them in your story.

    22. Eric J. Krause on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:50 PM
  23. I love this topic.

    I believe that a writer can convey a level of properness, which in turn can translate to tone, manner, and cadences in how a character is interpreted by the reader.

    Including correct punctuation in a character’s speech allows a reader to understand attributes about that character; traits of being careful, deliberate, and proper can be inferred. Just as a long, run-on sentence with no adherence to grammar or punctuation would imply a looser, more casual character.

    An actor could internalize this, I think. It may be at a subconscious level, but that’s how I would read it.

    23. Tyler on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:46 PM
  24. whichever author said that on twitter was just repeating Kurt Vonnegut, who said in A Man Without a Country:

    Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

    for the record, i don’t agree; semicolons are quite useful, and i used them before i went to college!

    24. shoshana on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:38 PM
  25. I find it difficult to believe that there can be a useful rule that semi-colons, or colons for that matter, may not be used in the reporting of direct speech.

    The English anarchist poet and author of English Prose Style, Sir Herbert Read, wrote beautifully in that book about rhythm; the rhythm of the sentence, the rhythm of the paragraph and so on. If a semi-colon helps establish a nuance of rhythm in the reported direct speech, then it serves a useful purpose.

    Until today I would not have thought a semi-colon was appropriate before an “and”, then I read this, in the Wikipedia entry on Read:

    “In order to create it is necessary to destroy; and the agent of destruction in society is the poet.” Herbert Read, Poetry and Anarchism

    A man of paradox – an anarchist politically and poetically, and a knight of the realm. Whether he ever expressed a view about the use of the semi-colon, I don’t know: I suspect that if he had done so it would have been along the lines of favouring what contributed to the rhythm of the passage, fiction or non-fiction, direct speech or not.

    25. Des Walsh on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:25 PM
  26. Learn to love the semicolon. You use it in spoken language whether you realize it or not.

    26. Jason on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:24 PM
  27. I don’t understand the “I don’t say semicolons when I speak” argument. Does anyone “say” periods or commas more or less than semicolons when speaking? Using the appropriate punctuation, or a certain style of punctuation, accentuates the intended meaning of a statement quoted from a dialogue or otherwise. In fiction, I think it should be up to the author’s choice to chose how a character’s voice is portrayed.

    27. keltiwoman on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:23 PM
  28. Regarding dialogue, it depends on the specific character. Some people/vampires/robots/goats speak with semicolons and some don’t. Making sweeping statements about specific punctuation marks is absurd. Making sweeping statements about what does and does not belong in literature is even more so.

    As to not being able to “hear” the semicolon, if you “hear” a comma where there ought to be a period separating two independent clauses, what you’re hearing is a semicolon. If the character is not prone to run-on sentences, they speak with semicolons.

    28. Claire on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:21 PM
  29. I find the semi-colon to be a natural expression of a pause, and wonderful for adding clarity to convoluted sentences. Of course that applies in dialogue; the rules don’t change just because it’s in quotation marks!

    29. Anna on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:19 PM
  30. I’d be one of those people who’s still kinda confused as to where to use them. But then again I like capitals after colons sometimes too, so I’m obviously an uneducated slob with the only language I know. ;)

    No objection to their use though. If I see them used enough I might be able to get a handle on where I could use them too.

    30. TKO on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:10 PM
  31. A semicolon is punctuation that can’t be spoken. It doesn’t translate to spoken text other than being pronounced as a comma. Since dialog (or monologue) is a written transcript of spoken word, I would have to argue it doesn’t belong, whether it’s in fiction or non-fiction. Even if the quoted character is reciting a list, s/he can’t speak” the semicolon, therefore it shouldn’t be in the written transcript.

    I would say the litmus test is: Which punctuation can I hear? What you “hear” is a comma, so that is what should be used in dialog.

    31. SWB on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:04 PM
  32. For dialog, I use punctuation as a guide to the length of pauses. I have read that that was their original purpose. Commas and periods seem to do that job well enough.

    32. John on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:04 PM
  33. This editor says: I encourage them where they’re needed, and discourage them where they aren’t! I don’t think it’s a sweeping, binary yes or no, it depends completely on how an individual sentence is put together.

    If semicolons work to convey a particular character’s speech patterns and put the right kinds of pauses in the right places, then I’m all for them, whether that character would deliberately or knowingly use them or not.

    If a writer doesn’t want their characters “using” semicolons, they have the option of rewriting the character’s sentences and speech patterns in ways that make them unnecessary.

    You want to talk unnatural-looking? I think capital letters after colons look way more unnatural than semicolons in dialog!

    33. Gabrielle on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:02 PM
  34. The whole point (pardon my “pun-ctuation” ha!) of the semi-colon is to communicate to the reader the intended flow of the sentence, which can go on to dictate any one of the many ethereal moods the character(s) are feeling. That’s my opinion at least; I love the semi-colon.

    34. Ryan on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:02 PM
  35. The reason it seems like a “speed bump” is because some people are still mystified by its use. It confuses them and causes their brain to slow down a process it. As always, better education is the key.

    35. Troy on September 23rd, 2009 at 6:00 PM
  36. I use semicolons when I speak as well as when I write, and if a character needs to use a semicolon in a sentence, I will feel free to allow it. I see no reason any punctuation mark should be ruled out so broadly. If the punctuation mark fits the situation, use it! No writer has the authority to tell all other writers on the planet that they ought never have characters speak a certain way. Writerly snobbery.

    Re: KimRossi’s comments, inauthenticity in dialogue is its own problem. Avoiding semicolons won’t fix a tendency toward inauthenticity any more than having occasional semicolons will skew otherwise reasonable-sounding dialogue into Inauthenticity Land.

    And on the semi-separate issue of whether fictional characters on the page should sound just like real people, IMO, it’s fiction. Fiction is a distorted reflection of reality, at best; if it were just like reality, then it would be nonfiction. And it would be very, very long, and vast quantities of it would be boring, nonsensical and frustrating. Being precisely like reality is exactly what fiction is not for. ;)

    36. Crystal on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:58 PM
  37. The semicolon is absolutely appropriate in narrative regardless of genre, but I agree that it’s (usually) inappropriate in direct speech. Semicolons are a formal device: people rarely speak in a manner that is crafted in such a way that a semicolon would be appropriate. In some cases, it might be: in particular if the dialogue is an organized telling of events or ideas (such as delivered in a lecture or by an expert). But in general everyday speech, sentences are rarely organized well enough to warrant what would amount to a conscious mental semicolon.

    37. Kellie on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:56 PM
  38. “May be so, Mr. Darnay; may be not. Don’t let your sober face elate you, however; you don’t know what it may come to. Good night!”

    Sounds perfectly fine to me, though maybe they spoke differently in the 18th century.

    38. Mark on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:55 PM
  39. I don’t see a poll?

    39. some_guy on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:55 PM
  40. I don’t think semicolons belong in dialogue. “I know how much that hurt you; I felt betrayed as well,” doesn’t LOOK like it would flow off the tongue well for some reason (although it reads just fine).

    The following, however, feels much more natural: I knew how much that hurt her; I felt betrayed as well.

    So YES, they have a place in fiction. I just don’t like seeing them in between quotation marks in the dialogue. Does that make sense?

    40. Carrie on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:55 PM
  41. I think the rules on semicolons are pretty straightforward.

    41. Rita on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:54 PM
  42. I agree that semicolons are awkward when used in dialogue. In general, they’re awesome!

    42. Malinda on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:53 PM
  43. How can the semicolon be held in such low regard? They can be very useful when writing for voice to indicate the duration of a pause for talent.

    43. Eccles9 on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:50 PM
  44. Semicolons are our friends; use them in dialogue, too.

    44. Mark on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:49 PM
  45. How can you possibly make such a blanket statement about a punctuation mark? Of course, in any fiction, there can be a place for a semicolon, or a colon, or a dash…. Write what works for the piece; don’t limit yourself because it is “modern fiction.”

    45. Russ on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:47 PM
  46. Totally fine in the prose (assuming they’re used correctly, which they often aren’t) but not in dialogue. Dialogue needs to naturally reflect the cadence of the speaker and 99% of the time, a semicolon won’t do that.

    46. Josh Covington on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:44 PM
  47. It should be noted that I am now hanging my head in shame for my OWN grammatical error in that comment. But then again – maybe that just proves my point even more :)

    47. KimRossi on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:44 PM
  48. It has to depend on the type of fiction, and where and how the semicolon is used. Since the twitter author you quoted was specifically talking about dialogue, I tend to agree with her. Unless the character is a ridiculously articulate individual, I could see it coming off as inauthentic. 99 percent of the population don’t use proper grammar when they speak. We switch tenses, speak in fragments, use “um” and “ah” a lot. We rarely use the type of sentences, in basic everyday speech, that would require a semicolon.

    48. KimRossi on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:42 PM
  49. Why are so many people hatin’ on the semicolon!!!! Plz stop the hatin’.

    49. Criss on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:41 PM
  50. Of course semicolons are okay! They fulfill a specific, necessary function.

    50. Denise on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:40 PM
  51. I don’t think I’ve ever used a semi-colon when I talk. I don’t use them in dialog, but all over the narrative. Couldn’t write without it.

    51. Aline on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:39 PM
  52. Semicolons are fine in any context as long as they are used properly.

    52. Sean Stoner on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:39 PM
  53. I think the answer is okay in fiction but NOT in dialogue like Carrie said.

    53. Aliza Sherman on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:38 PM
  54. Good lord. It’s basic punctuation.

    I’m scared now. Just a little.

    54. Fuzzy on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:37 PM
  55. ;
    It’s a wink! What’s wrong w/ a wink?

    55. Allie on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:36 PM
  56. i say they’re okay in modern fiction but not in dialogue like the author is saying

    56. Carrie on September 23rd, 2009 at 5:36 PM