Semicolons in Dialogue?

The Book Thief

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
A while ago, I posted In Praise of the Semicolon.

I'm fond of the little fellow, but its place in writing is more restricted than I realised. I haven't done much creative writing this year while slogging away at building a WordPress blog and website. From time to time, to keep my sanity, I've returned to a short story I started in January. Featuring my Cornish Detective, I intend to give it away to anyone who subscribes to my crime novel website. I started writing with no preconceptions, other than to explore the notion that locations can be cursed. My protagonist is several years younger than in the first novel, and having just taken command of the Major Crimes Team, he's still learning the ropes from his deputy officer, a veteran of 40 years.

They visit a place called The Sad House, an abandoned farm labourer's cottage where a runaway teenager was found hiding. It's been a place of murder and suicide for 200 years. Talking about the tragedies, the deputy falters telling a tale of murder-suicide. He half-finishes saying something, so I used a semicolon to mark how he completed his thoughts. It looked wrong! I changed it.

Then, that night, I was visited by the punctuation gods, for while reading a crime novel by Finnish author Antti Tuomainen I saw the main character's internal dialogue featured a couple of semicolons—and they looked clunky. It may have been a result of the original work being translated.

This morning, in one of the newsletters I subscribe to, there was an article about a newly published book all about the semicolon:

9 Things You Didn’t Know About the Semicolon

I like the anecdote about 'The Semicolon Judge.' The use of the semicolon in speech isn't mentioned in the article, so I had a gander at Stack Exchange, finding this discussion:

Using colons and semi-colons in dialogue

It's not an issue that I'm agonising over, but it's strange how a semicolon or a colon in dialogue becomes intrusive. It takes away from a guideline I cleave to, that punctuation should be correct for the situation, so correct that it becomes invisible.

What do you think?

(Cripes, this is a writerly thing to talk about!)

I can't remember for the life of me which author after writing an ms told his editor: here are the punctuation marks, place them where you please. I'm not that extreme but I find the orthodox set of punctuation marks quite inadequate and I often find myself resorting to dashes and a three dot series ...

However the 2019 edition of Word suggests punctuation for you, in particular the semi-colon which was non-existence in my works. Now, there are lots of semi-colons peppered all over my writing- I've never seen so many before. But you still have to be watchful, like google translations or word-check they do cock-up when you least expect it.
This is a forum for talking about writerly things!

I think any punctuation is permissible if it's in the right context. My critique partners are always lamenting my use of colons in my novels' narratives, but apart from "they rarely appear in fiction" I've not seen any cogent reason to avoid them. Similarly the semicolon; I am happy to use them if the situation demands. Dialogue rarely needs them because people don't often go on without pause to a new topic. But all fiction has a music to it, and the semicolon carries a voice that no other punctuation can match. All narrative should be read aloud at some point, and if you need that upwards lilt that comes with a semicolon, then by all means use one of the buggers.

"We can't give it to him; he's just as bad!" "We can't give it to him. He's just as bad!" and "We can't give it to him! He's just as bad!" all have the same meaning, but read them aloud and it's obvious they carry different tones. Tone is one of the main ways we can get across a character's voice. So yes, the semicolon can sometimes be useful.

In my current WIP there are 120 semicolons, of which probably about ten percent are in dialogue.
RE: "This is a forum for talking about writerly things!"

The exclamation mark, pourquoi? :) We are talking about writerly things, ain't we? And creative approaches.

@Rachel Caldecott-Thornton. I was once accused of having a creative approach to semi-colons.

It's called style, Rachel. Take no notice. I'm only saying I wouldn't use them in dialogue, myself, and why not. Not proscribing anyone else.

The semicolon is useful in pacing and phrasing, and lends a certain cadence. I don't subscribe to the notion bruited about here and there that the semicolon is redundant in modern writing. The grammar tyrants cited below can shut the eff up so far as I'm concerned

The Good, the Bad, and the Semicolon
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Can't see the image? Thanks for thinking of me. I actually used Ben Watt's Patient (English, has a band, you've probably heard of him) to help me shape the narrative. I tried to buy a kindle version of The Bell and the Butterfly, but couldn't (not available in Australia). Someone gave me a hard copy but my good hand isn't that dextrous and my other hand won't move.

It's been self-published, but only after an agent signed it (one of the top agents in Sydney, Australian Literary Management) and editors passed. They said they liked it, but thought it too much of a niche market for them to make money; their financial teams said no (unless my agent was lying to me!). My agent recommended I self-publish.

By other writers, I've been told its moved them and made them question something in their own life. Different things for different people. I suppose because it goes to the "I want to die" moment, and the way my husband stuck by me and then ends with a silver lining.

I wrote it in 2016 and I can see the issues (and I wanted to hear them so I can see my problems), but I never really wrote it to sell commercially (but I did seek agent validation), I just wanted to help other stroke survivors and their families.

It's too upsetting for me to go back there or I would tidy it up (the beauty of self-publishing). I was balling listening to just the first 700 words, lol! For my own sanity, I need to keep looking forward. It was really interesting to hear what my writing tics were and I can make sure they aren't in future work.
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The Book Thief

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