As an editor, I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to avoid using semicolons and colons when I’m editing fiction. Although I’d never given much thought to the reasons why, thanks to a recent tweet by Publishers Weekly (@PublishersWkly), I’ve stopped to reflect on this preference of mine.
The tweet at issue shared a fascinating study of Punctuation in Novels by Adam J. Calhoun, editor of The Third Culture. Calhoun’s work was inspired by Nicholas Rougeux’s Between the Words poster project which is “an exploration of visual rhythms of punctuation in well-known literary works.”
With that said, Calhoun mapped the punctuation in a number of books (mostly novels) and presented a breakdown of the words per sentence and words per punctuation mark. Then, on a reader’s suggestion, he made “heat maps” from the extracted punctuation maps—with beautiful and telling results. The post is worth looking at for those images alone.
According to the heat maps, semicolons and colons (as indicated by blue) had their heyday in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The most recent work in the mix—Blood Meridian (1985) by award-winning author Cormac McCarthy—produced a mostly red (indicating periods, question marks, and exclamation marks) heat map with only splashes of blue. Calhoun notes, “Pay attention to the semicolons which seem to have disappeared from writing.” He doesn’t comment on the colon, but perhaps that’s because it seems not ever to have been a huge player in fiction.
Nonetheless, all that left me wondering: am I simply following some cultural undercurrent to undercut the popularity of the old semicolon (and by association, the colon) in fiction? Or has something else led to my somewhat recent distaste for these marks?
It would be great to believe that I’m simply tuned in to the cultural aether and just going with the flow on this one, but knowing myself, there’s more to it. I probably shouldn’t commit this to writing, but vis-à-vis these marks in fiction, I HATE THEM! It’s that simple. Of course, I do use them sometimes, particularly if an author prefers them.
That still leaves me with the question: why do I hate them in fiction? I can sum it up in one word—persnickety. These little buggers reek of school and writing assignments and punctuation lessons that many of us were more than happy to leave behind in the hallowed halls of learning once we were spat forth into the world.
However, wishing not to be reminded of school when I’m reading for pleasure isn’t the end of it. The fact of the the matter is that semicolons can always be replaced by periods—presuming they’ve been used correctly in the first place. Strictly speaking, a semicolon should separate two independent clauses, but too often I’ve seen them used as glorified commas. This takes us to the heart of the semicolon matter. In using semicolons, one runs the risk of not getting it right. Hence, and especially if there is doubt, I suggest that it’s usually better to stick with a comma or period.
When it comes to the colon, it can usually be replaced by an em dash if needs be, and other punctuation can also be used in its place. I don’t see this mark used erroneously as often as the semicolon, but I suspect that’s because it’s much more flexible (see here for the rules) and less open to abuse than the semicolon. Regardless, it still feels persnickety to me in fiction, and thereby unnecessary.
I think there’s also another really important angle to this, and it’s that some readers aren’t quite sure what to make of these marks, or what their proper functioning in a text should be. A misplaced semicolon or colon is unlikely to interfere with a reader’s understanding, but unfamiliar punctuation, or punctuation that a reader isn’t comfortable with, can be off-putting and thereby take away from the reader’s enjoyment.
As much as I take pleasure in resisting some current language or writing trends, in this day and age of text speak, initialisms, and acronyms, I say to hell with the semicolon (when possible)!