Thursday, July 21, 2016

SEMICOLONS, Those Ornery Little Critters

 I seem to have an occasional compulsion for confessing foolishness and foibles as practiced by Donald Travis. There are plenty to select from… and believe me, I’m very selective.

A few weeks ago, the writing class I co-host reviewed the uses of the grammatical mark we call a semicolon. You know, that thing you don’t really understand but throw into your writing now and then for variety’s sake. Its most glaring peculiarity seems to be that (together with big brother Colon) it’s the only grammatical that goes outside quotation marks. If that isn’t enough for you, take a look at the thing: [;]. It’s a big dot in the middle of the line of type with a menacing claw attached to it. That should be enough to warn anyone away except for the bravest… or the foolish.

At any rate, I recognized that during our class discussion the subject of semicolons in dialogue would come up. Although the style book I use is silent on that particular subject, I had been taught that you do not use semicolons inside dialogue because in spoken conversation, semicolons cannot be heard. Nonetheless, I contacted my chief editor at Dreamspinner, a very helpful British lady named Sue Adams. She confirmed their practice is moving toward expunging semicolons from dialogue whenever they discover the errant little creatures. So at the very next Wordwrights Writing Class, I went forth and preached the holy text.

Last Saturday, I completed my review of the “Author” edit of THE BISTI BUSINESS, which is what Dreamspinner Press calls their first review of a manuscript. Their editing department uses the Word Track Changes program for the process. I must admit it was very disconcerting to see bubbles saying the Author suggested this and recommended that or (worse yet) quoted Chicago Manual of Style. I was the author, wasn’t I? After accepting their concept, I waded through the assault on my manuscript.

The first time the editor recommended I change a semicolon to a comma within dialogue, I assured Nicole (the editor of this first edit) this was a typo, as I never used them in this manner. In addition, I taught this to my class.

The second time she recommended a semicolon inside dialogue be changed to a period, I admitted she had just made a liar out of me.

On the fourth one, I confessed to embarrassment. The tenth? Mortification.

After the twentieth, I surrendered and told her to do whatever the hell she wanted with them.

Unfortunately, she had ample opportunity to exercise that freedom thereafter.

In my feeble defense, THE BISTI BUSINESS was written in 2011. Presumably, even I can learn something in five years’ time. I don’t know, maybe I ought to take a look at all my unpublished manuscripts.

Well, that gets confessions behind us for a little while. I hope my self-flagellation was of interest.

Feel free to contact me at As always, thanks for being readers.

New Posts published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.


  1. As far as I'm concerned, the semicolon and the Oxford comma are much misunderstood--and therefore often unfairly maligned. But I love your story.

  2. Thanks, J. I got a few chuckles living and writing it.


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