I have heard in writing circles that writers who use the semi-colon are just demonstrating that they’ve been to college/Uni. And that writers should either pause (comma), not pause (no comma), or stop completely (full stop).
This is not true at all. A semi-colon is an important element of punctuation to have and you’ll be a better writer for learning how and when to use it. Why? Because people use semi-colons in their speech. Sometimes, they speak with momentum, pretending to stop, but don’t, and then skip a word or two and punch you with a statement.
That’s a semi-colon in action.
I have learnt to create semi-colon moments by deleting words.
I could have written the sentence perfectly, but I didn’t believe it was finished.
I could have written the sentence perfectly; I didn’t believe it was finished.
I kicked the ‘but’ right out of that sentence with the semi-colon and gave the sentence different emphasis. If you can’t read the different emphasis. I can’t help you. You may need to speak to an English language teacher about that.
It was 11am when I woke and noticed the dog was still asleep. I knew something was wrong.
It was 11am when I woke and noticed the dog was still asleep; something was wrong.
The semi-colon means I can dump the ‘I knew’ completely. The sentence still works, and is better in my opinion. The second sentence is less-formal. I already stated ‘I’ in the first part of the sentence, so I don’t need to state ‘I’ again in the second part. As far as I’m concerned, all unnecessary duplication needs to go. One ‘I’ is enough, and the semi-colon allows that.
I could even use semi-colons to create a list of statements
It was 11am when I woke; the dog was still asleep; something was wrong.
The brevity is more akin to how we think and speak. I don’t need ‘and noticed’ or ‘I knew’, so I can shove a semi-colon in there and give the sentence even more punch.
By contrast, the colon is a different beast.
Sometimes, when I’m driving and coming to a stop, I’ll slow down with the brake steadily, then hit the brake hard so the car compresses on its suspension, whereby I’ll release the brake again and the car’s momentum will roll the car slowly forward.
I have just ‘coloned’ the car.
What do I mean?
I gave the impression I was stopping, everyone thought I was stopping, and I could have stopped, but I didn’t. I chose not to and let the car roll on. I had more to say. I just wanted you to think my thought had ended.
That’s how a colon works and why you should/could use it.
This is a very powerful writing technique and used by the considerate writer. One who doesn’t just want to pause, or stop, but one who wants to pause, stop, and start again with such accuracy, that the reader is propelled forward with the kinetic momentum of the sentence proceeding it.
Here’s an example of a colon if I was a petulant child:
I walk forwards towards the door, whining and then stopping suddenly and stamping my feet twice: I don’t want to go! I shout.
Stamping your feet twice at the end of a sentence is like a horse running up to a fence and halting before the jump. It may have stopped but the action hasn’t and the rider flips over the reigns and crashes in to the barrier.
The colon is an unfinished sentence. A petulant child and a halting horse. It stops with such drama that it really wants to prove a point: so look out.
After the colon, you can write whatever you like, but its stoppage means what’s coming is going to hit you between the eyes.
- I’ve got two words to say to you: get out.
- It hard to hear you hate your mother: I’m your mother.
- I pulled the ripcord and the chute didn’t open: I’ve got nine seconds to live.
I believe, whatever is placed after a colon, should be like a short swift punch. I have read work which delivers a long meandering sentence, which is not wrong, but for me, it loses its impact.
Colons are great; semi-colons are better: Mark
Mark Mapstone is a skateboarder, a writer, and author of the Ethan Wares Skateboard Series books.
Follow Mark on Instagram: @7plywood
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