I’ve had many submissions in the slush pile this week. Several submissions were inundated with the overabundant and erroneous usage of the semicolon. For clarity’s sake, let me state that I am not specifically semicolon adverse, though I do believe the usage is somewhat archaic in modern writing, especially in mass market fiction. My primary issue with the semicolon is I acquire books for publishing houses that frown upon semicolon usage as part of house style. The manuscript and the publisher have to be a good fit, and part of that process is recognizing the amount of work required to make the manuscript polished and ready to go to press. Wrong semicolon usage indicates sloppy writing, which indicates a greater amount of editing time, which indicates a greater cost to get the book to market, which indicates a greater potential for rejection. Sometimes publishing realities are hard.
First off, this is a semicolon ;
Semicolons are used to link two separate thoughts or ideas which are similar. Each thought or idea should be its own complete sentence. I underlined the word “complete” because semicolons do not link sentence fragments or link independent clauses to dependent clauses.
Here are some examples:
CORRECT: John ate lunch; the lunch was great.
CORRECT: John’s lunch was made with several spices; the fish was sprinkled with tarragon.
INCORRECT: John ate lunch; Sarah is coming over. (unrelated thoughts or ideas)
INCORRECT: I like to eat lunch out on the patio; and I can’t stand to eat in the kitchen.
It might be helpful to read your sentence out loud so you can hear it. If you say, “And I can’t stand to eat in the kitchen,” you ideally would be able to hear that this is not a complete sentence. It has that extra “and,” making the above example incorrect. You probably should delete the “and.” You really should.
Some writers use semicolons to adjust the flow of their writing to create a specific pace. Using a period in place of the semicolon would result in short, choppy sentences and would alter the pace or flow of the text. This is fine. If used correctly, and minimally, a semicolon can be a very effective pause that keeps the pace of a novel moving. But, if the semicolon would be better replaced by a comma or period, then consider using a comma or period.
It also might be helpful, especially if you are a serial semicoloner, to do a search [CTRL+F] for the semicolon. The search feature will give you the total number of semicolons in your document. If you have only a few, then the semicolon use is much less of a concern. But, say you have more than a few. Say you have 50 in a 250 page manuscript. Say you have 25. In that case let me encourage you to look at each and every semicolon. Make sure the usage is correct if you are going to keep any of them. If you do have 25 or 50 let me encourage you not to keep the majority them. Let me also encourage you to consider making these revision changes before you click on the submit button and send your manuscript off to an agent, editor, or publisher. The more polished your manuscript, the easier it is to get to market.