June 16, 2018 at 10:53 pm #347036
How to stay out of trouble with punctuation that can puncture your prose
The semicolon. I had first encountered it in classic literature in college. It seemed to hold all the big bulky paragraphs together. It seemed to appear in more paragraphs than the periods themselves, almost replacing them. I often found the semicolon intimidating.
But, once I had taken a Prep English course in college, once English and grammar had made perfect sense to me, I began to see using the semicolon as a way of celebrating, as a way of, I confess, showing off my command of the English language and semicolon. I no longer bewared it. I embraced it.
The semicolon made my writing look more intellectual, more sophisticated, but what I didn’t know was that the semicolon was turning me into a monster.
I remember a college paper I had written for a literature class, and I remember, even though I had gotten a descent grade on the paper, the instructor, after I had asked him, pointing out in the paper where I had crossed the line with the semicolon in the paper.
I don’t have the paper, but even after that moment with my instructor, my problem with the semicolons still hadn’t been resolved. It hadn’t quite sunken in yet—that is until just after I had published my first work of fiction “Jamaican Moon and Other Stories”, a collection of three novellas. Perfect timing.
I guess lucky for me I had taken it for granted that the publisher would take care of all the proofreading—until I had received a telephone call from a good friend who had bought the book.
Although she had enjoyed the book, “The book,” she informed me, “was riddled with errors!”—not so much errors in the story, thank God, but with all the typos, which were very distracting, but luckily for me, she didn’t hold me responsible.
I went through the book, and she was right: An average of three typos plagued every page. “One book”, I think, should average only three typos! But it was much more of a blessing than it was embarrassment.
I immediately telephoned my publisher in Texas who had informed me that proofreading manuscripts wasn’t their responsibility.
Thank God it wasn’t too late to correct all the typos.
As I went through the book page by page I began to notice just how many semicolons I had used. I mean they were everywhere, on almost every page, crawling like ants. I noticed how cluttered and awkward they made my sentences look—not sophisticated at all. Clearly I had not used the semicolon correctly or in moderation.
Page by page, I began trading semi-colons for periods; where a semicolon was I replaced it with a period.
Now, of course, I didn’t get rid of all the semicolons but most of them.
I guess that process—going through the manuscript and getting rid of all the unnecessary semicolons—was time I spent in semicolon anonymous.
Having gone through semicolon anonymous, I am, by no means, an expert on the semicolon, and I am by no means cured. I still use it—sometimes more than I probably should—but I do try to use it in moderation.
If there is one author I think uses the semicolon correctly that author is mystery novelist Carl Hiaasen. Not only does he begin each sentence with the preposition “On” he also uses the semicolon quite sparingly.
I don’t know what rule Hiassen uses with the semi-colon, if he even has a rule, if he even needs a rule, but the rule I have now with the semicolon is that if I can eliminate the semi-colon all together, I do. I split the sentence up into two sentences.
This practice has led me to believe that a perfectly clean sentence is a sentence with as little punctuation as possible, including the comma and with exception to, of course, the period.
Short simple sentences, at least for me, are the way to write. They will keep you out of trouble like the trouble I had with abusing the semicolon.
June 17, 2018 at 12:26 am #656144
Wow. Did not know there was a semicolon anonymous.
Used to be a website save the comma.
Commas are underused and not appreciated enough.
Recall a big company that had to pay a lot of overtime when they got sued because they omitted a comma.
So much for oxford. Illogical, and dangerous too.
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