The proper use of semicolons

I have absolutely no idea how often I’ve explained to a student how to use semicolons. Normally that conversation actually goes like this: “This is a comma splice. You can fix it in these four ways. Here’s why you might want to use a semicolon in this context …”

We actually do have faculty here who don’t allow their students to use semicolons. I think this is SUCH an ABYSMAL copout. So students often use semicolons wrong? Well, who could have seen that coming? Maybe you should teach them to use semicolons correctly?

And in that effort, this post might well be quite useful:


You know, I love semicolons! But not as much as I used to. You know what I do now? I do a search through the manuscript and look at every single semicolon and colon and dash and decide whether I want to keep it or change it. This takes HOURS and is VERY BORING, but I think it’s worth it. I still do use a lot of semicolons and dashes, yes, I am sure you have noticed that.

Also, every now and then? Even though the linked post about semicolons is correct and all, even so, sometimes you may want to break a semicolon rule and that is fine!

Just from time to time, I use both a semicolon and an “and” at the same time. It just gives the exact right “feel” for the sentence — a sort of catch-and-drag. I guess I do this about once per two books, so not very often. Just every now and then.

I used to let copy editors talk me out of doing ” . . . ; and . . . ” constructions before. Then I noticed that Robin McKinley and CJ Cherryh both do this on occasion. Now I use those constructions if I really prefer the feel it gives the sentence.

I do wonder whether the occasional grammar whiz is bothered by it, though. Well, I don’t wonder, exactly; I’m sure it does. Breaking this rule means you’re betting that most readers will feel the drag in the sentence without noticing what you did to cause it, and that most of the rest will tolerate the occasional breaking of a rule.

It’s the same with other rules, of course. You can use a comma splice, especially in dialogue, to create a rushed, breathless feeling. I’ve done this, lots of writers have done this, not only am I doing it here right this minute but Gilman uses this technique in her wonderful Mrs Pollifax mysteries . Oh, and I noticed a lot of comma splices in the Murderbot novel, Network Effect. (Did anybody else notice this? Did it bother you?) (By the way, another Murderbot novel / novella is in the works, because it’s listed in the series with a release date next year. Title is Fugitive Telemetry.)

Anyway, comma splices in a published novel drive some readers NUTS and more than once my very own mother has MARKED THESE AS WRONG IN THE BOOK. IN PEN. That drives me nuts. But at least it keeps me aware that some people are very very very bothered if you break a grammatical rule and totally do not think that the “feel” of the sentence or the “breathless” voice of the pov character justifies it.

And that is useful because it makes me think twice and three times before breaking a rule.

But I am still going to do it now and then. I would prefer that you do not mark up my book in pen if I do.

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2 thoughts on “The proper use of semicolons”

  1. My stance is that it is important to know the grammar rules in order to know when to break them and why. I’ll admit that comma splices tend to slip by me–mostly because my own grammar education came about from reading books, so I could always tell you when a sentence was grammatically incorrect, but not in what way. My formal grammar training has come from editing my own (and others’) work and teaching grammar to my kids. Homeschool: useful for the parents as well as the children.

    My husband, an engineer by trade and a theologian by interest, still has a better grasp on grammar than I do because he has learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, a few others ancient languages, and a smattering of German and French. Even he doesn’t get too bothered by comma splices in stories, though he might in a scholarly article or paper.

  2. Rachel Neumeier

    Comma splices and all other mistakes really annoy me in academic contexts. There is no artistic justification there; punctuation errors in academic prose are real errors and make the author look sloppy and unreliable. NOT the best look for that kind of writing!

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