好的,壞的和分號


73

我完成了我的小說,一位編輯朋友熱情地提議幫助我進行格式化。作為前科學家,我對技術或學術著作更為熟悉,因此格式化小說可能是一個挑戰。我的朋友剝離了我的分號,並用一個簡單的時期代替了大部分。我問為什麼,我使用不當?我知道他們習慣於分隔獨立但相互聯繫的子句,為什麼要在一個簡短的完整句子中寫出兩個簡短的完整句子呢?她笑著說,如果你是一個死去的英國作家,那很好,除了現代小說寫作中很少使用它們。學術和技術作家的寫作性質更易於使用。

這促使我進行了獨立研究以確認她的建議,我發現了這顆寶石:

You are allowed one semicolon in your entire working life as a novelist. You can use more than that if you insist, but quite honestly you have a disease that should be treated and I refuse to be an enabler for you. a2020_0

有趣,但是認真嗎?因此,我進行了更多的狩獵,然後發現"語法女孩"在分號的用法方面也有出色的文章。她引用的權威不亞於Kurt Vonnegut:

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. a2020_1

嗯?她的文章繼續說明,馮內古特(Vonnegut)從事誇張,但當他這樣說時,他是否真的迴避了分號的使用仍然不清楚:

He ends any lingering doubt when he uses a semicolon later in the essay and then writes,

*And there, I’ve just used a semicolon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.

僅在技術或學術寫作中允許使用分號嗎?

127

Bollocks. (That's a technical term.) The semicolon is the correct punctuation for a particular kind of sentence structure. So on the face of it, if you want to outlaw something, it should be that sentence structure, not the punctuation that is necessary to it.

But this is one of those rules like kill all the adverbs. Many writers today do not give sufficient attention to the quality of their prose. They are all about getting their plot down on paper and are negligent of their prose and its effects. One of the most obvious ways this shows up is as the sloppy use of adverbs. But merely cutting out all the adverbs won't make your prose better. And substituting exotic verbs for simple verbs, as some anti-adverb crusaders recommend, won't make it better either. In fact, it will make it more pretentious. If you train yourself to be a good prose stylist, if you pay attention to the quality of your prose as you write, you will use adverbs appropriately where they are needed.

Similarly, people who don't pay attention to their prose often end up writing convoluted sentences that are hard to read and then try to fix them with punctuation. If you get down to semicolons in this attempt to punctuate a broken sentence it is a good sign your sentence needs to be rewritten. In fact, I would state it as an axiom that if you have any question about how to punctuate a sentence, you should probably rewrite the sentence, and, quite possibly, the entire paragraph. But really great sentences can sometimes require semicolons and taking out all the semicolons will make the great sentences worse but it won't make the bad sentences better.

Any rule that makes an enemy of any part of speech or any punctuation mark is bollocks. Great prose stylists use them all. To determine if an adverb or a semicolon is appropriate in a particular sentence, you have to look at the overall quality of the prose. Adverbs and semicolons may be relatively rare in good prose, but they have their place and are something essential to felicity of expression.


23

I myself have been criticised on at least one occasion for using too many semicolons in my writing. I hadn't noticed at the time, but I really was overusing them. It's one of the quirks of my writing style that I now try and consciously tone down, along with starting dialogue paragraphs with "the character did this" and my inability to go three pages without someone making some kind of witty or sarcastic remark.

My use of semicolons in fiction writing is generally limited to descriptive paragraphs, where run-on sentences are more acceptable. Often, I end up with two short sentences describing the same object; a semicolon is a neat way of linking them together without resorting to "and". (See?)

The only hard-and-fast rule I have when using semicolons is that I limit myself to one per paragraph. This stops me from overloading my descriptions with them and forces me to vary my sentence structure more to keep things interesting. But in general, I see nothing wrong with using semicolons. The trick, as with most things in writing, is not to overuse them.


EDIT: After a brief discussion in the comments, I'd like to add that it's also important to make sure you're using semicolons correctly. Part of the backlash against them is due to writers using them inappropriately. Semicolons are for linking related clauses, as I did in my example. They're not just fancy commas.


14

As with every element of style, it depends on context. In modern American fiction, semicolons are avoided; but trends do change, and old-fashioned modes of expression that were once considered effete affectations are coming back into fashion.

Personally, I love semicolons and use them frequently, but only in non-fiction, when I'm conveying complex conceptual content. I rarely (if ever) "hear" them in natural speech, and they seem excessive in most descriptive passages. They are really a conceptual marker rather than an oral one; and storytelling, much more than academic writing, relies on that strong narrative voice, even when not read aloud.

If you do use them, be aware that they will give your writing a professorial tone. I also wouldn't personally use them in the examples you gave in the comments (you might want to edit those into your question), so I would say that your friend has given you good advice.


13

I agree that flat-out banishment of any tool (adverbs, semicolons, etc.) is almost certainly wrong. Though many editors and agents will shake their heads if you use more than one or two semicolons in a novel. They are pretty far out of style.

Looking at your examples is instructive, though.

Semicolons seem particularly unnatural in dialogue. Nobody transcribing a conversation would ever give a moment's thought to using a semicolon; they're just going to write it as two sentences. The fact that those sentences are consecutive will typically be enough evidence that the ideas are closely linked (which is what the semicolon is supposed to mean, after all). If you read dialogue in popular mainstream fiction, you might also see the intentional use of a comma-splice as a way to run two short sentences together.

If you want/need a pause in the dialogue, don't use a semicolon. You need something that separates the ideas, which is the opposite of what a semicolon does.

As others have mentioned, an ellipsis can show hesitation or a trailing off of words. Dashes set off interruptions--either in the flow of an idea or in the literal case of a speaker being interrupted mid-sentence. A more significant pause, as you might have when a character collects their thoughts, can be indicated with a bit of business, like rifling through the files or pouring a drink.

It's easy to overdo pauses. Screenwriters are told, "Don't direct on paper." Let the actors/readers determine where most of the pauses go. Good dialogue rarely leans very heavily on punctuation. The right words in the right order go a long way. Save the explicit pauses for the really important moments. Less is more.

Outside of dialogue, the occasional, properly-used semicolon can give a passage an air of academic rigor. So, yeah, have at it in those passages.


2

Semicolons are passé, as is writing with fountain pens and typewriters. Nothing really wrong with them, but the great majority of the reading and writing public has stopped understanding them or even wanting to. As they have ending sentences with prepositions.

By the way, research by academics studying various kinds of writing has found, repeatedly, that 7 words is about the most the general public reads in a paragraph before deciding whether to continue. And multiple sentences in a paragraph put most folks to sleep. Can't say that I blame them.


2

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7

A semicolon is a complex beast:

  • You don't use it when you want an idea to stand on its own. You use a full stop for that.
  • You don't use it to tie two ideas closely together because if you did, you'd relate them with lighter punctuation like a comma.
  • You use it to relate two ideas weakly; it strongly implies there's a relationship between the two conjoined ideas but leaves it to the reader to determine what that implied relationship is.

As a result, it's difficult to use semicolons frequently without also using a slightly opaque writing style. When you use a semicolon, the fact that it clearly relates two clauses together without giving a direct indication what the relationship is necessarily forces your reader to read in-between the lines.

If you look at the list I gave above, the second bullet point relates its two clauses explicitly with the word because, allowing you to immediately understand that the second clause is related to the first due to providing an explanation for the first clause. In the third bullet point, the semicolon implies exactly the same relationship, but you are forced to read more carefully in order to understand that. You have to understand the two clauses separately, my implied context for writing this answer, and the parallelism in the entire list before you can be sure you correctly understand how the two halves of the sentence relate. It's not much more work, but it is more work nevertheless.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing because sometimes, that more opaque writing style is what you want. It's important to keep in mind that for writing fiction in particular, though, part of what you need to accomplish is making the task of reading your work pleasant and enjoyable for your readers. You typically want to write using a style that makes the semantic meaning of your story jump off of the page, allowing the reader to spend their mental energy on more sophisticated levels of your writing, such as the subtext in dialog or the thematic implications of characters' decisions. And, if possible, you want your writing to have a musical or poetic quality to it such that it "sounds good" in the reader's head.

Typically, a semicolon works counter to both of those goals. If you force a reader to spend some time figuring out whether your semicolon in, "I wanted to kill her; she had done so much to me," means that the speaker wants to kill her because of or in spite of what she had done, that's more work the reader has to do before getting back to reading in-between the lines of your story proper. And if you're trying to write with a musical quality, then forcing the reader to grind to a halt to understand a semicolon correctly can interrupt the rhythm (unless you're trying to get a slower effect).


All in all, though, these are definitely things to keep in mind at the level of being nitpicky. I would much rather read a story filled with semicolons, even awkward ones, that has compelling characters and themes than read a disjointed story with spotless prose. And every writer has their own style. Some people will never have occasion to use semicolons; others, like myself, will use them on occasion. You seem to like them, so more power to you!

When you finish your first few drafts of your story, you'll reach the point where the most important considerations aren't the structure or strength of the story proper, which have already been vetted and are largely set in stone, but rather getting the nuance and tone of each passage just so. This is the best time to consider the ideas of making your reading easy to approach and musical, and this is when you can really think carefully about each individual use of a semicolon. Until then, it's probably best to enjoy the story yourself as you discover it in the first couple drafts and not worry too much about the fine details of your prose, which you will thoroughly rework anyway.


2

You mentioned using semicolons in dialog. As others have pointed out, this is usually unnatural. But it is instructive to understand why it feels unnatural.

In real life, people rarely speak in fully grammatical complete sentences. Real speech has filled pauses, abrupt changes of subject, sentence fragments, excess or insufficient connective tissue, and numerous other irregularities. If we actually wrote all of these things verbatim, our characters would read like idiots and our readers would put the book down after half a chapter. The written word lacks the intonation, body language, and other nonverbal communicative channels which make ordinary speech comprehensible.

So we summarize and condense. We rewrite the incomplete thoughts that a person would actually say into the complete sentences that our readers can comprehend. There is an art to this. Do it too lightly and you have all of the problems I described above. Do it too heavily and your characters read like a textbook, with no voice of their own. Different authors, and perhaps different characters, will strike different balances along this spectrum.

Enter the semicolon. A semicolon denotes a short pause, less than a period; it connotes a thematic or structural link between two complete sentences. When you find yourself inserting these "nicely linked up" sentences into a character's speech, you may have gone too far with summarizing and condensing. Your dialog no longer reads like something the character could have come up with on the spur of the moment. Instead, it reads like something they rehearsed in advance.

Of course, there are times when a semicolon in dialog is entirely fair. For example, a politician's planned speech may well contain a semicolon or two. Such speeches really are rehearsed in advance, so the semicolon enhances the verisimilitude of the character's speech pattern. But when that same politician gets off the stage, you should expect them to revert to more natural punctuation.

In conclusion, banishing individual parts of the language from our usage is unhelpful. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the implications of our choices while writing. Careful use of punctuation, diction, and tone of voice are just as important as, if not more important than, narrative considerations like plot and setting.


1

I think most people just FEAR the semicolon!

Below is an excerpt from https://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

How to use a semicolon The most feared punctuation on earth.

skipping over WHY and HOW

WHEN - When should I use a semicolon? "I gnaw on old car tires; it strengthens my jaw so I'll be better conditioned for bear combat." Use a semicolon when you want to form a bond between two statements, typically when they are related to or contrast with one another. In the example above, the relationship between gnawing on tires and combatting bears is strengthened by using a semicolon. "I fought the bear and won. Also, I never kiss plague rats on the mouth." In this sentence, your victory against the bear does not need to be connected to the plague rat, so a period is used.

INTERNAL - Use a semicolon to connect sentences that contain internal punctuation. "When dinosaurs agree on something, they'll often high-five one another; dinosaurs are all about high fives." If you'd used a comma in the sentence, it would have resulted in a comma splice. If you'd used a period, you'd lose the connection between the two clauses.

SUPER - Use a semicolon as a super-comma. "While searching for a good place to get a unicorn burger, I travelled to Seattle, Washington, Tokyo, Japan; and London, England." Use a semicolon if you need to make a list of items that are separated with a comma. This often occurs when listing locations, names, dates, and descriptions.

Again, this brilliance is excerpted from The Oatmeal's Grammar Comics , but the basic concept is one I've agreed with. Semicolons are not fancy ; they're just another tool with a specific set of use cases, some of which are quite common.