Seasoning with Colons and Semi-Colons.
Erratic and excessive use of colons and semi-colons is one of my long-standing punctuation demons. For the final draft of my doctoral thesis before my viva I went on a massive cull, slashing semi-colons until there were a little less than 70 in the book (that’s about one every five pages), and I was still picked up for having too many of the little buggers.
I think my problem was that I was using them as pauses, and worse still as a cheap way to show a link between two ideas without actually demonstrating the link. This is a common fault in bad academic writing (particularly in Derrida rip offs). It is a stylistic workaround for not being able to prove what you are saying. In the short term, learning to write without semi-colons and to minimise the use of colons forces you to provide a clear a constructive argument.
However, in the long-term, there are occasions where the colons and semi-colons are both better and more beautiful. So how are you supposed to use them?
Colons (:) are used to move from the general to the specific. Typically, the second statement will serve to affirm, to illustrate, or to explain the first.
The key to mastering correct punctuation: diligence.
The “general” part of the sentence is usually a complete sentence, whereas the specific example can be a sentence, a list or even a single word. You can go the other way, from the specific to the general.
Diligence: the key to mastering correcting punctuation.
Going from the specific to the general operates like a reveal, creating opportunities for surprise or humour, because the reader generally expects it the other way around. As such, use them sparingly or your colons will become jarring and break up the flow of the text.
Other ways to use colons are to separate a title and a subtitle, to indicate a specific quote, to cite passages from the bible, to indicate ratios in informal writing, or to juxtapose antithetical statements, for example:
I bluster: he delivers.
Note that unlike American English, British English does not use the colon to denote hours and minutes (12:42 in American becomes 12.42 in English). There should be no space before the colon, a single space afterwards (no dashes, hyphens or other nonsense like that), and British English typically does not use a capital after the colon.
I get all of these things wrong. In French you put a single space before and after the colon; frustratingly, I am now in the habit of using the French style in English writing and the English style in French, because nothing is simple when you’re a bit rubbish at language. Meanwhile, my spellchecker will not recognise two spaces or a capital letter after a colon as an error. That means the colon has to go on the list of annoying things you have to check manually when proofing your story. Hence: diligence.
Semi-colons (;) are where most people (including me) really start to get into trouble.
A semi-colon links two closely related sentences.
I immediately saw the problem; he was staring out of the window.
But the use of the semi-colon in this fashion is not compulsory. If the semi-colon can be used to link sentences then it should always be possible to use a full stop in its place, and it will normally be possible to replace the semi-colon with “, and”, “,but”, “,or”, “,while”, or something similar.
I immediately saw the problem, and he was staring out of the window.
I immediately saw the problem. He was staring out of the window.
Using phrases that are not individually complete sentences is a common error made when using the semi-colon. A complete sentence is one that contains a main clause: an independent subject and verb that expresses a complete thought. An incomplete sentence is a fragment, and semi-colon should not link a sentence to a fragment, so
I immediately saw the problem; staring out of the window.
Is wrong, and is an example of what you actually needed was a colon:
I immediately saw the problem: staring out of the window.
For all that this seems clear enough, you are probably going to run into a disagreement at some point about using a fragment with a semi-colon. In creative writing deliberate use of fragments can be a powerful device. The fragment will stand out, it is effective for emphasis, and although it can make the text choppy if overused, it can bring drama and tension to your prose. I’m pretty certain you can’t use fragments around a semi-colon and be grammatically correct, but I’ve had editors put semi-colons in-between fragments and it has looked better to my poor befuddled brain. Plus, when in doubt, I find bowing to the peccadillos of the editor a much more successful tactic than telling them they are bad editors who don’t do grammar proper like.
Another place where semi-colons seem to get used in breach of this standard is in particularly long sentences broken up by many commas. In such a phrase, the semi-colons provide pauses, spaces to take a breath, potentially transforming a painful slog into poetry. If you’re Virginia Woolf you can use this to write prose of unearthly beauty. It can also establish the point of view of a particularly breathless character, or show where events are running into each other:
Whirling, the camera falling away from his face, the windscreen falling into pieces; he reached out with his left hand, obscuring the light, noting the scars on his fingers as he fell; slowly, slower, slow.
But most of the time you would be better off taking the paragraph apart and reconstructing it with more full-stops. It may look beautiful and Woolf-esque to you, but your reader will probably just see the dense passage and skip to the next paragraph. I know, lazy readers, right?
So this is another one of those techniques (like placing the specific before the general around the colon, or daring a fragment in conjunction with a semi-colon) that to use only if you are seeking a particular effect, and you are sure you are not overdoing it.
This brings us back to my opening paragraphs, and my doctoral journey with colons and particularly semi-colons where getting rid of the blighters made my writing better. The semi-colon has fallen out of fashion. In a journalistic age where the one sentence paragraph is commonplace and people won’t read articles without pictures, the semi-colon seems increasingly out of place.
Short, concise sentences improve clarity and indicate precise thought. You could probably write copiously for the rest of your life and have no need to use a colon or a semi-colon. There’s always a way to write you way around them, especially the semi-colon. By its very nature, the semi-colon can usually be substituted by a comma + bridging word or a full stop. So why use them at all?
Well-used colons and semi-colons are beautiful. They bring subtlety, even glamour, to your text. They build expectation, propelling you from one sentence to the next. It is sloppy academic writing to throw in a semi-colon so you can skip the explanation for why sentences are linked. But in fiction that space allows for reader creativity. The fact that the use of a semi-colon is often a choice makes that choice mean something to the reader.
I should mention at this point that there are some words that require a semi-colon rather than a comma when used in a sentence; however, nevertheless, also, consequently and hence are all examples. The rest of the time, a semi-colon (or, if you want to bring out the big gun, a colon) is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate a connection where it is not self-evident.
- Julie was sick. Peter was coming back on Tuesday.
- Julie was sick; Peter was coming back on Tuesday.
- Julie was sick: Peter was coming back on Tuesday.
In sentence 1, the reason for Julie’s sickness is unclear, but in sentence 2 the reader has good reason to connect her sickness with Peter’s return. Maybe Peter caused the sickness; maybe Peter has been sick as well and as such can only return on Tuesday. The existence of the semi-colon raises these questions in the mind of the reader, which increases anticipation, enjoyment and the sense of mystery. Finally, in sentence 3, the colon cuts through all that and makes clear a causal link between Peter’s return and Julie’s sickness.
This little change in the choice of punctuation significantly changes the meaning of the two sentences, and lets us say a lot more with a lot less. Like salt or pepper, overuse spoils the meal but the right amount in the right places transforms the food into a feast.