Posted On August 17, 2012 by Print This Post

Conquering Your Fear of the Semi-Colon with Editor Theresa Stevens

Do you rewrite sentences just to avoid using a semi-colon? Editor Theresa Stevens explains the proper usage of the semi-colon, narrative compression (what’s that?), and the importance of creating a likeable character as she critiques another RU reader submission. 

Welcome, Theresa!

Line editing spans the gap between content editing (with its focus on story elements) and copy editing (with its focus on grammar and mechanics). Sometimes, in order to straddle that gap, we find ourselves with one foot in copy editing territory and one in content editing. That’s the case this month. Here we have a scene that contains many of the right elements — decent structure, clear scene-level conflicts, good insertion of description and dialogue — but the scene suffers from grammar issues and a difficult character. 


“You stupid, piece of shit! Ugh!” Carly kicked the tire, directing her foot to the flat of the rubber but instead encountered the solid rim. Pain jostled through her body as a sharp stab flew up her leg.  “For the love of Christ!”  Her body fell to the hard, hot pavement as she pulled her leg up to her chest, cradling the now throbbing limb. Her heartbeat now pulsed through her foot and she paused momentarily, wondering just how she would get to the nearest hospital; hell, even civilization should something be broken in her foot.

She let loose a slight whimper looked around. The flat landscape spread out for miles ahead of her, the desert looking harsh and daunting to a city girl such as her. The vast brown expanse of land was filled intermittently with small shades of bare green trees, a crap load of tumbling weeds, and plenty of cactuses.

“Just my luck. Brown, brown, and brown. Oh, look, Carly, there’s something green. Yes, but it’s a cactus and that isn’t going to help you right now. Annnnd, now you’re talking to yourself. Wonderful.”

Carly dropped her head to her knees and felt despair begin to rise up. She had left Los Angeles in such haste only twenty-four hours earlier that she hadn’t planned on needing any kind of emergency equipment.  Hell, she hadn’t even planned on leaving at all but then again, you never know when your plans could change.

And hers had significantly.

Now in all of her infinite wisdom, she had set out on a path to get far away fast, she was stuck on the side of the road in some portion of Death Valley with only her broken down car and two hundred dollars to her name. Her phone was useless as there was absolutely no reception out here and the bottle of water she had purchased was used twenty miles back when her car had begun to overheat.

She lifted her head and glance up at the bright orb in the sky wondering just how long she was going to last out here, in the middle of nowhere, with close to one hundred and ten degree heat, no water, no cell phone, and a bum foot.

“Damn it.”

Her mind worked furiously trying to pinpoint what the last sign she had seen on the road or even when she had last passed a car, someone, any signs of civilization. She came up blank; aaaand now her ass was starting to burn, the heat of the pavement seeping through her jeans.

Several foul words spewed from her mouth as she scrambled up, trying like hell to ignore the pain her foot was now shouting with.  She tried to catch her balance as it gripped her body and reached out for the trunk of her car. Her palm landed on the metal and a burst of agony jolted her system only seconds later.

“Give me a break!” she shouted. The black metal gleamed as the sun pulsed with a reminder of its harsh ways. She held her hand up and examined the palm, noting the bright red skin which would no doubt have blisters covering it later.

God damn, what else could go wrong?

As if on cue, a bird overhead shrilled out its response. She looked up wearily as the large red-tailed hawk circled around her; patiently for the desert to seize her life. Sweat beaded and rolled down her back and in between her breasts, serving as a reminder that things were about to get a whole lot worse. 


If you ever happen to be in a group of writers and the conversation lags, here’s a guaranteed way to liven up the group. Ask them, “So, what’s your opinion of semicolons?” I’m not saying blood will be shed, but really, it almost could be. People have very strong opinions about semicolons.

What they don’t always have, though, is a solid grasp of how to use semicolons. This is why, as an editor, I’ve come to despise the darned things. It’s not that I have anything personal against this form of punctuation. It’s that the combination of passionate opinion and imperfect grammar is usually a recipe for headaches. Be passionate about semicolons, if you choose — shoot, be passionate about every aspect of your writing. This can only help you in the long run. But know the rules, too. 

In a nutshell, there are two ways to use semicolons.

1 – To separate complicated items in a list containing three or more items. In this case, there will always be more than one semicolon, and those semicolons will follow groups of words.


On my shopping trip, I purchased new sneakers and boots at the shoe store; jeans, three shirts, and a jacket at the department store; and a ladder at the hardware store.

This list is complicated for two reasons. First, each list item includes phrases, not just simple nouns. Second, the middle item on the list contains another nested list (jeans, three shirts, and a jacket), and using commas instead of semicolons would create confusion about which list items go together. 

2 – To replace a conjunction in a compound sentence. In this case, there will be one semicolon, and there will be a complete sentence on either side of the semicolon. There will not be a conjunction after the semicolon. 


The cottage is a busy house; visitors always stay for the weekend. 

That’s it. That’s all there is to the semicolon rules. Every time you use a semicolon, it should fit into one or the other of these patterns. So look at this sentence —

She looked up wearily as the large red-tailed hawk circled around her; patiently for the desert to seize her life. 

There is only one semicolon, so we know the parts before and after the semicolon each must be complete sentences. But the part after the semicolon is not a complete sentence, so this should be eliminated. There’s no need to replace it with any other punctuation in this case. Just cut it.

Similar thing here — 

Carly hobbled to the driver’s side door, opened it and collapsed inside; her mind frantically trying to work out just how she was going to get out of this.

Again, the part after the semicolon is not a complete sentence. In this case, though, instead of just changing the punctuation, I would ask for a revision of the sentence. Why? The part after the semicolon is “telling,” a form of exposition known as narrative summary. We’re not hearing Carly’s thoughts moment by moment. We’re getting a compressed, capsule summary of the fact that she is thinking. That kind of compressed narrative is best saved for moments when we must present facts to the reader, but those facts are dull or repetitive. In this case, given the extreme problem to be solved, Carly’s attempts to think through the problem shouldn’t be dull or repetitive. They should be interesting and captivating.

It’s possible that the author has chosen to insert some distance between the reader and Carly because Carly is not very likeable here. This might be due to her extreme circumstances. She could be adorable and charming in better moments. But here and now, she’s sarcastic, defeated, and impulsive. She lets her frustration get the best of her. This makes her a little hard to take, and it’s possible that the author chose to use narrative compression to create some distance between the character and the reader in this difficult moment. 

In certain circumstances, this can be an effective tool. Here, I’m not convinced it works. If I had the entire manuscript to edit, I would be looking for a better starting point for the story, one that would let us get around this problem so that the reader can bond to the character from the outset. We want romance heroines to be admirable, likeable, even noble. Yes, we must give our characters problems to solve, but we want them to go about solving them in ways that prove the essential goodness of the characters. In the beginning of the story, especially, it’s important to establish that. Save moments of weakness for the middle of the story, after the reader is locked into the character’s experience. But for the first pages, a slightly different approach might work better.


Now that you’ve vanquished your fear of the semi-colon, do you have any questions about other punctuation marks? What traits would you give your characters to help them establish a bond with a reader? 


RU’s regular contributor, Ruth Harris, joins us on Monday, August 20th to discuss Dressing and Undressing Your Characters.


Theresa Stevens, Editor/Publisher

Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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37 Responses to “Conquering Your Fear of the Semi-Colon with Editor Theresa Stevens”

  1. Morning Theresa!!

    Oh, that semi-colon. Word keeps telling me to put it in, but I dunno……=) Thank goodness your explanation rocks! Now I can check out all of my compound sentences (too many of them!) to make sure they follow the semi-colon rule – or change them entirely!

    Definitely adding this to my keeper file!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | August 17, 2012, 6:19 am
    • Word’s grammar checker defaults to a sort of academic form of grammar. If you’re writing a paper for your Psych class, it’s not going to hurt anything. But in fiction we usually use a more generative form of grammar — something not purely generative, but certainly less academic. In other words, there’s more than one set of grammar and style rules, and your rules are not Word’s rules.

      Posted by Theresa | August 17, 2012, 7:26 am
  2. Hi Theresa,

    “Conjunction, junction, what’s your function?” Schoolhouse Rock had the best grammar lessons. I agree with Carrie. Word loves semi-colons.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | August 17, 2012, 7:11 am
  3. I’ll admit I always stay away from the darned things. They make my head hurt. Now though, I’m feeling inspired to throw in a semicolon or two!

    Thanks for the awesome explanation!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | August 17, 2012, 7:15 am
  4. Thanks for clarifying the use of the semi-colon, Theresa. You’re so right about the amount of passion and malevolence this punctuation causes within groups of writers.

    I liked the semi-colon, but never felt completely sure about how I was using it. I will now be use it with complete confidence and feel thoroughly prepared to defend my choice.

    One question: Can the semi-colon be used in dialogue, or is this frowned upon?

    Posted by Roxanne | August 17, 2012, 7:17 am
    • Roxanne, when people speak, do you hear semicolons? We can hear commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation marks just because of intonation and modulation. We can hear dashes when people are interrupted or break off abruptly. We can hear ellipses when people’s thoughts trail off, but we probably can’t hear them when they skip over something in the middle of a thought. And I think we can’t hear semicolons. I think they sound like periods or commas. Do you agree?

      Posted by Theresa | August 17, 2012, 7:30 am
  5. It all seems so simple when you put it like that. I shall never let those semi-colons get the better of me again.

    Posted by Lorrie Porter | August 17, 2012, 8:18 am
  6. I’m still afraid of them but this helps so much. In the keeper file!

    Posted by Robin Covington | August 17, 2012, 8:27 am
  7. I avoid semicolons in fiction because many editors have requested that of me. So how about colons in fiction? Yes or no? 🙂

    Posted by Jody W. | August 17, 2012, 8:35 am
    • Colons are used to state conclusions. Usually, we’re trying to avoid presenting conclusions to the reader. Usually, we want to manipulate the reader into forming a conclusion on their own, or we want to prevent them from reaching a conclusion too soon. Their use in fiction should be minimal for these reasons.

      Posted by Theresa | August 17, 2012, 12:52 pm
  8. Thanks for a very useful blog, Theresa! And thanks to the brave writer who submitted her work!

    In my day job as a garden writer, my editor has one rule for semi-colons and colons: don’t use them. No matter if they are grammatically correct – he just doesn’t like them. I grumble a lot and use multiple sentences where I would prefer a semi-colon. In some ways it’s good training for fiction – that and the fact that I can NEVER use exclamation points in my garden writing work. But it still frustrates the heck out of me.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 17, 2012, 8:46 am
    • It’s certainly cleaner writing, and it’s easier on the reader. Keep in mind — studies have shown sentences are best absorbed when they contain eighteen or fewer words. If you have more than that, even properly punctuated, you have to be extra careful about clarity.

      Posted by Theresa | August 17, 2012, 12:55 pm
  9. The first rule for semi-colons have been in my mind for awhile.

    I’m also trying to figure out my position and degree of passion in the debate.

    Posted by Chihuahua Zero | August 17, 2012, 8:58 am
  10. Thank for a concise description about the use of semi-colons in words small enough for me to understand. 😉

    Posted by Stephanie Berget | August 17, 2012, 9:06 am
  11. Thanks for sharing this.

    Posted by Marla Rose Brady | August 17, 2012, 9:36 am
  12. I find your thoughts and rules on semicolons to be quite helpful in identifying my aversion to using them.I’m in the process of writing a story called The Fire Bond of Banja Rouge, and I will keep these thoughts in mind. Thank you.

    Posted by Kelvin Singleton | August 17, 2012, 11:32 am
  13. Hi Theresa!

    Here are two of the sentences you presented as examples:

    She looked up wearily as the large red-tailed hawk circled around her; patiently for the desert to seize her life.

    Carly hobbled to the driver’s side door, opened it and collapsed inside; her mind frantically trying to work out just how she was going to get out of this.

    Can you replace the semi-colon with a comma?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 17, 2012, 12:30 pm
  14. Many thanks to Theresa and to the RU reader who submitted her pages!

    Have a great weekend!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | August 17, 2012, 10:38 pm
  15. As it turns out, there is one question I’d like to ask about this little critter that has been nagging at me for quite some time. Can semicolons be used correctly within a quotation when writing fiction?

    Posted by Kelvin Singleton | August 17, 2012, 10:55 pm
    • By quotation, do you mean dialogue? I don’t think people speak in semicolons. We can hear other kinds of punctuation (commas, periods, question marks, exclamation marks, dashes, some ellipses), but I don’t think we hear semicolons.

      Posted by Theresa | August 21, 2012, 6:51 pm
  16. Thanks for the tips! I actually love using my semicolons, but I’m never quite sure if it should be a colon or a semicolon – I always get them mixed up. x)

    Posted by Bree | August 20, 2012, 1:42 am
    • A colon is used to present a conclusion. They’re pretty rare in fiction, but if you do use one, make sure the part preceding the colon is a complete sentence on its own, and the part following the colon is a conclusion of the part preceding the colon.

      Posted by Theresa | August 21, 2012, 6:55 pm
  17. Thank you very much. You just crystallized my very thoughts when you said that we don’t hear semicolons. This has been very helpful. Now I can put the thought out of my mind.

    Posted by Kelvin Singleton | August 21, 2012, 7:49 pm


  1. […] Semi-colons should rarely be used in fiction. For more insight on this, take a look at Theresa Stevens’ recent post. […]

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