Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Gearing Up To Get An Agent Blogfest: "I just had to ask...."

This is the first week of Deana Barnhart's Gearing Up to Get an Agent Blogfest, and this week we're doing random writer questions!

So this is probably the lamest question ever, but, I've been wondering for a long time: What the heck is a semicolon good for?

Now, I'm pretty good at google, and I've found an awesome website that actually has a rather helpful poster about it (you can view it and even BUY it). After reading the poster tips, I think I have a better grasp on the semicolon (sorry--attorneys never ask questions we don't already know the answers to), but now I'm wondering if I'm using it correctly. So here's some semicolons I've forced into my WIP. Please let me know if this is a correct usage of that dreaded punctuation mark:
It had been taped to her desk in biology—marked over with devil horns and a forked tail; stuck to the bathroom wall—with bat wings and fangs; and slipped inside her English book—with blacked out teeth and crossed eyes.
The website really wasn't much help on the above: it didn't cover semicolons being used with em-dashes. (Em-dashes I love. Probably too much.)
He had no idea why they so stubbornly lived where no one wanted them; but as long as they were here, he, his three older brothers, and the rest of the San Antonio pixies were forced to mingle with the humans.
I'm pretty sure this is right... right? How about this one?
All in all, it might have been mildly pleasant if not for three things: his lips slammed into hers with the full force of his teeth behind them, pressing with bruising, one-directional force; the arm around her waist caught her lower right wing, folding it back at a painful angle until she almost cried out; he was so much taller than Brina, her head was forced backward until her skull rested on the back of her neck.
See, I think this one is good, too. I'm mostly including it because I like it. ;) I really do wonder about the next one:
Pixie scientists worked with the human variety to develop soon-to-be-essential drugs: Yellow anti-depressants; Orange energy supplements; Red-enhanced testosterone (quickly outlawed in competitive sports); Purple sleep-aids; Blue erectile aids; Green-enhanced vitamins; and White-enhanced psychotropics.
Should those semicolons be commas? I think commas would work, but there's the parenthesis... which I should probably get rid of, huh?

Here's more em-dashes:
Moira’s mother was always pulling her away to have mini-lessons on court politics—also known as gossip; fashion—also known as how to look like a slut without being labeled one; and eligible crown princes—also known as future husband possibilities.
Should those semicolons be commas?

Help?

UPDATE: To answer some easier questions (maybe--no promises), visit this list of blogfest participants.

40 comments:

  1. I simply haven't found a good use for one. I'm prejudiced. I don't like them. So I don't use them.

    What a meanie I am.

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  2. I don't know the actual rules for them. I've used them for listing things, and also when two sentences are so closely tied to the same thought, they feel more natural pieced together, if that makes sense.

    But like you, I'm an em-dash fan. Long live the dashes! Have fun w/the blogfest. :)

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  3. Ew. Hate those. ;) I stick with commas.

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  4. I usually use them by gut and then fix them when someone who actually knows grammar tells me to. Sorry, not much help, I know ^_^

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  5. Nothing really because they are so formal. If you write literary fiction then use 'em, otherwise there's no real point.

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  6. When typing into word if the grammar check says I need em, then in they go!

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  7. Your examples are terrific, actually! I Google +ed this post :)

    I'd say in all these instances, use semi-colons except with pixie scientists. Commas all the way there, though grammatically, you'd be okay to use a semi-colon.

    I happen to like this punctuation. It's useful for clarity. BUT. I'd add that in MG/YA books, and in dialogue especially, they often come across as overly pretentious and are often unnecessary; you could have used periods in a few of the above. I'd say in general steer clear, but do keep them in your arsenal.

    Nice to meet you!

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  8. I am not certain if comma should only be used in just literary fiction. In many ways, how you use comma's is one of the aspects that define your particular style of writing and help your writing be distinguished between anyone elses writing.

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  9. Holy stump me big time! I'm with Meghan, if the word check says to use them, I do, but otherwise I steer clear.

    I would totally take Lora's words of advice since she was an agent and all in a past life:)

    Great question Robin...you guys are making me smarter by the minute:)

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  10. The usual intent of the semi colon is to separate too short, closely related independent clauses. That means the two sentences could stand alone. You could also connect them with words like and, but, etc.

    Advice--a semicolon is a weak period and not a strong comma.

    As for the em dash. It can be a visual thing. You could use commas, parentheses, or dashes to split off a side comment. How much attention do you want to give to it? With commas it's hardly noticeable. Parentheses show it off more, but the em dashes really draw your eye to it.

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  11. Well, Lora and Donna are getting the "most useful answer" votes at this point.

    Thanks, everyone! Keep the advice coming!

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  12. Lora and Donna nailed it.

    For some reason, I have the odd sensation that my head is going to explode off my body! Thank you world for Word grammar check--that's all I'm saying. :P

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  13. Lindy--yes, semicolons have that effect on me, too.

    Maybe I should pay more attention to grammar check. I just love those sentence fragments SO MUCH!

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  14. I'm thankful I understand them and use them occassionally. I still think they are interchangeable with other punctuation marks. However I wouldn't say that if semi-colons were near by. No need to hurt their feelings.

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  15. It had been taped to her desk in biology—marked over with devil horns and a forked tail; stuck to the bathroom wall—with bat wings and fangs; and slipped inside her English book—with blacked out teeth and crossed eyes.

    This seems unclear to me because the semicolon follows the em-dash; it's like saying the "marked over with devil horns and a forked tail" is stuck to the bathroom wall. It confuses me. This is what you want to say, but it doesn't carry the "bang" you're striving for:

    It had been taped to her desk in biology, marked over with devil horns and a forked tail; and it had been stuck to the bathroom wall, with bat wings and fangs; and last, it had been slipped inside her English book, with blacked out teeth and crossed eyes.

    Can you use the em-dashes with the semicolon? IDK.

    It had been taped to her desk in biology--marked over with devil horns and a forked tail--and it had been stuck to the bathroom wall--with bat wings and fangs--and last, it had been slipped inside her English book, with blacked out teeth and crossed eyes.

    It had been taped to her desk in biology--marked over with devil horns and a forked tail--stuck to the bathroom wall--with bat wings and fangs--and slipped inside her English book--with blacked out teeth and crossed eyes.

    Oh well, keep trying!!

    Kathleen

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  16. All I can hear in my head is that Edwinn Star song "WAR! What is it good for?", except put in 'Semi-colons'
    ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! (Say it again!)

    I don't actually feel this way. It is just stuck in my head.

    To answer your question, "Yes, on Wednesdays only."

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  17. Kathleen--That paragraph has given me more grief.... I think I've changed the punctuation in it five times already and still it's confusing. Might have to do a complete rewrite. Grr.

    Shelly--if I use them on Wednesday and they're read on Thursday, is that still okay, or should I put a disclaimer on my book, limiting reading to Wednesdays?

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  18. I'm impressed with your writing-who cares about the semi colons? just kidding. I use them as little as possible. But I do love em dashes!

    I'm following you now.

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  19. I've also developed an unnatural fascination with em-dashes. I don't hate semi-colons, but I do think they have a better place in more literary or technical writing; there's only one in my manuscript right now.

    I cringe whenever I see colons or semi-colons in dialogue, though--they just look so unnatural! Give me clean-looking sentence fragments any day.

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  20. When it comes to semicolons, I do the best I can! If it seems like it's more of a break than a comma or if Word tells me to, I add it. Scary semicolons!

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  21. Kathy--Thanks! May the agents be of similar mind! :)

    Michael--Em-dashes are so pretty! How can anyone avoid them?

    Also, anyone who talks with semi-colons should be shunned. I bet court reporters never use them. *resolves to never check*

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  22. There are differences between speech in the real world and speech in books. Anyone who has been a toastmasters member hears semi-colons in speech all the time, they are the dreaded um's (or other such filler words).

    I looked through some of the books we own to see if there were any semi-colons in written speech. I did find some, usually in older books. And interestingly enough, there use in speech seemed to mimic how Em-dashes are used today.

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  23. Theresa--I really don't think my Word program has ever told me to add a semi-colon. I'm feeling cheated.

    Eric--thanks for looking that up! I love that UM's are the semicolons of regular speech and that we have finally learned to love em-dashes as they were meant to be loved! :D

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  24. Those drug ones for sure just commas. The way I think of it is a longer pause than a comma but not long enough to need a period with the two being linked.

    Don't ask me for an example lol.

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  25. Donna is right. The semicolon is used to separate two sentences that closely relate. I use it from time to time, but I'm also an em dash addict. In fact, I've been killing truckloads of dashes from my novel as I rewrite, because too many on one page is detracting.

    I keep a copy of Elements of Style on my desk; it helps with these types of questions.

    -- david j.

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  26. You want a great description for semi colons? Go get "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Writing." I agree with her perspective on semi colons one hundred percent. She's got it goin' on!

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  27. I like semi colons for breaking up a very long sentence.

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  28. I love the semicolon, but I don't think there are many instances in which one is absolutely necessary. It can almost always be substituted with a comma or period (except in the instance of the SUPER comma lol).

    Example 1: Those should probably be commas. Actually, I would advise against using both an em dash and a semicolon in the same sentence so you can avoid this confusion lol. It just results in a very messy sentence.
    2: This is correct, but I'd still make that a comma instead.
    3: I like this one :)
    4: Definitely commas.
    5: I think this could work, but I also think em dashes and semicolons just shouldn't be used together in this way. Very messy.

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  29. Uh oh, never ask a professional editor (my day job) a question like this. :) The following rewrites are only suggestions but ones that I hope will help:

    It had been taped to her desk in biology—marked over with devil horns and a forked tail. It had been stuck to the bathroom wall—with bat wings and fangs. And it had been slipped inside her English book—with blacked out teeth and crossed eyes.

    (I would try to avoid semicolons and em dashes in the same sentence. BTW, I also really love em dashes!)

    He had no idea why they so stubbornly lived where no one wanted them, but as long as they were here, he, his three older brothers, and the rest of the San Antonio pixies were forced to mingle with the humans.

    (I’d replace the semicolon with a comma, because you’re connecting two independent clauses. True, you could argue that you were starting a second sentence with the word “but” and therefore a semicolon would be OK, but I’ve never worked anywhere where we were allowed to get away with this. Darn, right?)

    All in all, it might have been mildly pleasant if not for three things: His lips slammed into hers with the full force of his teeth behind them, pressing with bruising, one-directional force; the arm around her waist caught her lower right wing, folding it back at a painful angle until she almost cried out; and he was so much taller than Brina, her head was forced backward until her skull rested on the back of her neck.

    (I would cap the word following the colon. I also would add an “and” after the last semicolon, so readers know they’re coming to the end of a series.)

    Pixie scientists worked with the human variety to develop soon-to-be-essential drugs: yellow anti-depressants, orange energy supplements; eed-enhanced testosterone (quickly outlawed in competitive sports), purple sleep-aids, blue erectile aids, green-enhanced vitamins, and white-enhanced psychotropics.

    (This time I’d lower case the first word after the colon, because what follows isn’t a complete sentence. I’d also lowercase the first word of each item in the clause and replace the semicolons with commas, since none of the items in your series contains any commas.)

    Moira’s mother was always pulling her away to have mini-lessons on court politics (also known as gossip), fashion (also known as how to look like a slut without being labeled one), and eligible crown princes (also known as future husband possibilities).

    (I normally am not a fan of parenthesis, but how do you think, in this exception, it would work? Does it make the sentence read more easily for a reader’s eyes?)

    You just made me day with questions like these. :)

    Michelle

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  30. Lori, you have to be careful using a comma instead of semicolon. It's a considered a grammar error, called a comma splice. That's in business writing anyway.

    Jo Rowling uses comma splices all the time in the HP books. I think we have some literary license there. As long as your agent and editor don't have issues ...

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  31. Personally, I didn't like the ; in any of your samples. I would have used commas. Or started new sentences. I didn't realize I was so prejudiced against the semi-colon, but I guess I am.

    I use the dreaded ; only when two sentences are short and really feel like they should be together. An example could be: I felt overwhelmingly tired; my body ached with exhaustion.

    Nah, I still hate it.

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  32. I love this blogfest. You guys are so helpful!

    Catherine--consider them gone

    David--did you just tell me to go look it up? :D (Yeah, I need some good grammar reference books.)

    Emily--I'll look into it! Informative + fun takes the sting out of grammar lessons.

    Kristi--me, too. I just don't always use them right. Sometimes a long sentence is just a long sentence.

    Lori--I'm sold on the em-dash/semicolon conflict. We don't need fighting punctuation, do we?

    Michelle--so... when can I send you the rest of my WIP so you can fix it, too? Thanks so much--awesome suggestions!

    Donna--comma splice sounds painful. :)

    If I don't comment the rest of the night, it's because my internet is on the fritz. Thanks so much for everyone's advice! Please feel free to continue!

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  33. When I saw your question I actually let out a little squeal inside-- I'm the semi-colon and em-dash queen! I did take a look at all your examples, and here's what I think:

    Example One: WAY too many em-dashes. Limit one per sentence because otherwise you will confuse the hell out of your readers. An em-dash is supposed to provide a little aside from the rest of the sentence but when you have more than one people start losing track of what the actual sentence is and they get confused. I had to read your sentence four times before I understood what you were trying to say. Parentheses might work better in this particular case for you. The semicolons themselves are fine. :)

    Example 2: I don't believe the semicolon is necessary here, or the comma before 'he'.

    Example 3: The usage is correct, though you may want to replace the third semicolon with an 'and'. Also, while I get that you're using this as an example this sentence is way too long to work for me personally if I were reading this in a book.

    Example 4: I really don't see why any of those semicolons can't be commas.

    Example 5: Again, this is an instance where parentheses would serve you better than em-dashes. I have a great love for them too, as I said earlier, so I understand why you might want to use them but it reads awkwardly IMO. But your use of punctuation is correct.

    I don't know if this definition was included in your blog or in what you found, but the purpose of a semi-colon is to separate a clause from the rest of the sentence. It's not really interchangable with a comma, which is why I didn't really get why you used all semicolons in Example 4 when those aren't clauses but just a series of items. Do you get what I mean?

    Sorry if I came off bitch or anything-- just trying to be constructive. If you have any further questions, let me know. :3

    Jasmine

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  34. Semi-colons scare me. I never know for certain if they are needed or not! Lol! I always thought they were to connect two sentences that are of the same train of thought but would be too weak or short on their own?? So far I write with the mantra, "when in doubt, leave 'em out" in reference to semi-colons. ;) We'll see how long that works for me. Haha!

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  35. LOL, Also hate the things and avoid them unless my spell check says I need one, then I think again. Grammar is not my strong point!

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  36. Laura--I'm seriously going on a semicolon hunt. SOO glad I asked this question!

    Jasmine--bitchy crits are my favorite!! Seriously. I'd rather have them now than after publication! Thanks so much!!

    Amanda--I'm adopting your mantra.

    Siv--ah, grammar. We hates it, precious!

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  37. Hi Robin! I found you through Deana Barnhart and am a fellow BlogFest participant and new follower.

    Personally, I hate semicolons. I don't use them when I write and I find them distracting when I read them. Having said that, only use it when you have 2 complete sentences that follow the same thought or you would like to be connected. But just making them separate sentences works just as well, too,

    And as for the em-dash, well, that should be used when you kind of have an errant side thought, like a qualifier that's not meant to be a part of the main sentence. They should be used sparingly as they are also distracting. I do use them, though.

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  38. I am a grammatical loss. Thank goodness for those that know it. I'm sending my MS to them before querying.

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  39. Semicolons always seemed a little ostentatious to me. =P

    - Cholisose

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  40. Nancy--Welcome! I'm thinking I need to weed my semicolons fo-sho.

    RAD--I need a grammar guru, methinks. Not even my mother pointed out my misuse!

    Rose--well, I AM a lawyer.... :P

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