Saturday, March 21, 2020

Semicolon Anonymous—using the semicolon in moderation

I had first encountered the semicolon in classic literature in college. It seemed to appear in short stories like Barn Burning by Falkner. It seemed to turn what I thought was prose into technical writing—which I was not a fan of.

But back then I didn’t really understand the semicolon or its function in punctuation, but, once I had understood the semicolon and its purpose in prose, I got very comfortable with it. I thought it made my prose look so intellectual, so sophisticated. I used it whenever and wherever I could, and soon my prose spiraled out of control until the semicolon took over me.

I remember a critical paper I had written for a college literature class. Even though I had gotten a descent grade on the paper, the instructor, after I had asked him, pointed out in the paper where I had gotten a little too happy with the semicolon.

But even after that moment with my instructor, the problem I had with the semicolon still hadn’t quite sunken in yet—that is until it really mattered—just after I had published my first work of fiction Jamaican Moon and Other Stories, a collection of three novellas.

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 read and enjoyed the book, “The book,” she informed me, “was riddled with errors!” but luckily for me, she didn’t hold me responsible—even though I really was.

I went through the book. Typos were everywhere, on every page. They were very distracting. An average of three typos plagued every page. Very unacceptable! What was acceptable—one book with an average of only three typos! Clearly I had not used the semicolon in moderation.

I immediately telephoned my publisher in Texas who had informed me that proofreading manuscripts wasn’t their responsibility. The price you pay for a non-traditional publisher.

But thank God it wasn’t too late to correct all the typos.

Page by page, wherever possible I replaced a semicolon with a period.

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, but I’m sure there are many more authors who do.

I don’t know what rule Hiassen uses with the semicolon, 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 semicolon all together, I do, splitting the sentence up into two or more sentences.

This may sound a little extreme, but this practice with the semicolon has led me to believe especially as a screenwriter that a perfectly clean sentence with exception to, of course, the period is a sentence with as little punctuation as possible, including the comma, yes, even the comma.

Using short simple sentences, at least for me, is the way to write. Short simple sentences will keep you out of trouble like the trouble I had with the semicolon.

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