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  • I’d be surprised if he did. Years ago, a friend of mine called semicolons “salacious flirts” because of this development in their usage.

  • I’d feel quite disadvantaged if I had to do without semicolons; I feel they are an invaluable aid to more nuanced writing. Like you, I will sometimes go back and remove some, or add some in where I didn’t at first. Perhaps I’m guilty of over-using them. I might not know, until a paragraph is complete, just how exactly I want it to sound and *feel*, and whether a semicolon is called for.

  • Duncan: Yes, that rings true. Often it’s only in editing or rewriting that prose assumes its fine-grained form and feel, and it’s due in part to putting our command of punctuation to good effect. Jeanette Winterson was right when she called semicolons a “marvellous invention”.

  • I think it is more accurate to describe the semi-colon as a mini-fullstop rather than as an ‘extra-strong comma’, because the units on either side need to be grammatically complete (unless you are using verbless clauses etc). A corpus example at random: “There are a lot of theories out there; we just need some facts…” A comma there would probably be considered ‘incorrect’ – an example of a run-on sentence or comma splice, much warned against by language teachers. This of course is not the whole story.

    I do have trouble with colons though. For example, in the penultimate line of your post you use a colon after ‘of course’. I can see why you chose it, but it’s a tricky area, and I look forward to your post on the subject. (Apologies if you’ve already mentioned it – I haven’t looked it up in the archive.)

  • Gill: Yes, the semicolon often behaves like a “mini-fullstop”, a usage that’s probably more common than the “supercomma” style demonstrated by the Golding quote.
    Teachers understandably warn against comma splices, but I wouldn’t normally consider them incorrect — just sometimes not the most appropriate style. (I’ve written at length about comma splices on my own blog, with a growing list of literary examples.)
    I’ve yet to devote a post to colon usage, but I’ll try to get around to it. Thanks for your interest!

  • I so love the semicolon! What’s not to like? It’s such a useful little tool, more sophisticated than a comma, far superior to a full stop. It’s a little resting place where you can pause, not lose your train of thought and then continue to the end of the sentence. I use it regularly in reports I write for work and I’d be lost without it.

  • Helen: I find it extremely useful too, so much so that I have to take care not to employ it excessively. “A little resting place” is a fine description; it can feel like that especially in long complex sentences.

  • It sometimes frustrates me when I find I’ve used 2 of them in the same sentence; I don’t *know* that this is wrong, but I feel it must be (unless I’m creating a list). That’s when I go back and find that the first one might actually be a colon, or I just have to rewrite the sentence, expressing the idea differently – which can be a good thing anyway.

  • Duncan: Looking at different ways to organise a sentence is a good habit, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with having multiple semicolons in one. It doesn’t have to be a list: the sentence might have different elements with internal commas, or significant pauses between them, which justify a series of semicolons. It’s not something to do lightly, though; breaking the sentence up is often a better option.