In Defense of the Semicolon


I love the semicolon.  I adore that unprepossessing little mark that situates itself between clauses that could very well stand on their own but just aren’t sure they can pull it off without help.  Honest and brave, the semicolon—a true diplomat.  

“Yes, sir,” it says.  I am fully aware that you are a clause of complete thought, having a subject and a verb, and are therefore worthy of the greatest respect.  But you see, sir, this clause coming along right behind you has something to add.  It complements you;  it makes you look good. (See what I did there?)

The semicolon is well aware that it must share the burden with its cousins, the flighty comma, the rigid period, the dreamy ellipsis and the flashy dash.  It is told, by writers who have achieved great success by ignoring it, that it is unnecessary, superfluous, and stuffy.  Any number of words quite hurtful to a mark of distinction that seeks only to serve the larger narrative.  

And so it waits.  Knowing that writers love to string thoughts together, it sits on the grammar shelf gathering dust, waiting for those two perfect clauses to come calling. 

The comma has no such detractors.  It is considered the epitome of good writing to insert commas into one’s writing regardless of the clausibility of the series.  I point to the following as my exhibit A: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison.

Now, no one would argue that A Tale of Two Cities is among the world’s great books, or have the temerity to suggest that Charles Dickens might have a teensy comma problem.  But if I wrote that particular paragraph, I would be accused of running my sentences together without appropriate punctuation.  I humbly suggest that a semicolon or a period or two might not have gone amiss.

And speaking of the period—I have nothing against that little dot.  What would our writing be like if we could never stop for breath?  It is important.  It is necessary.  It just. has. too. much. power.  It does not equivocate.  It demands a full stop, and there is no further discussion.  I just sometimes feel that I don’t want to smell the brake dust while reading a passage.  I just want to slow down, give it some thought, and then move on in the dance of words.

The ellipsis…ahh, the ellipsis…that is in a different category altogether…I am quite fond of the ellipsis myself…it signals a cessation of thought, speech, breathing…sometimes the very heartbeat of the reader…as though the author wished for her writing to be the last thing experienced this side of the veil… it can therefore be dangerous and should not be attempted by the amateur…

Which brings me to the dash family.  The hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash are all cousins, but their uses vary greatly—I will be speaking of the em dash here—the one that just eliminates large pieces of thought—a bigger bully or lazier punctuation mark I have never seen since—well, you get the picture.  In the words of our period, enough. said.

So, I will now return to my defense of that most abused of all punctuation marks, the semicolon;  it seems to get a bad rap;  I do not know why;  there is a pause in the narrative;  the reader, however, can expect the passage to end at some point;  all clauses are connected by some fundamental purpose;  the meaning is complementary and clear;  in short, the semicolon is my hero.

I have been told that I overuse the semicolon;  I don’t know why.  It is a wonderful little tool…I have forgotten how many times I’ve needed it to express—the meaning should be clear, and I don’t. want. to. give. it. up. 

Disclaimer:  No punctuation marks were injured during the writing of this essay, although several were annoyed.



I had to write something for a family member as an assignment for my Story Cartel on Becoming Writer (The Write Practice).  After sending it to my sister I published it in the cartel workshop, and now I’m putting it here, because…well, just because.


I wanted a sister, and my mother refused to produce one.

It wasn’t that I was an only child.  No such luck.  She had three more after me…all boys.  I was gracious after the first one (well, I was two, so pretty mindless about it then), and I gave her a pass after the second, but when she came home from the hospital with the third boy, I just lost it.  

“Take it back!”  I screamed, melting down into a lovely tantrum which contained all the despair and frustration of having to share my life with yet another boy.  “I told you I didn’t want another brother!  Take it back to the hospital and don’t come back without a girl!”  As if any sensible infant, girl or boy, would want to live in a home with a screaming banshee in it.  But my poor third brother had no choice, and I wasn’t in charge after all, so in he came.

Four years later, the law of averages finally kicking in, my mother had a girl. Too little, too late.   I was twelve years old by then, way too ancient to bond with an infant.  She was cute, and cuddly, and I got to change all the diapers I wanted.  Turns out girl diapers aren’t much different than boy diapers when all is said and done.  They all stink.  And I was into school stuff by then;  no time for a baby of any sex.  She grew up closer to the brothers than to me, and I had a pre-teen and then a teenage life to lead, so I didn’t mind much.  

I went off to college, where I met my future husband, and saw my sister as if through a glass darkly, in little snippets of visits during holidays.  After I was married I moved away, and saw her even less.  The sister I’d wanted so badly was a stranger.

Then something happened.  My sister grew up, and that magic that shrinks the years between began to bring us closer together.  We were both adults;  we had things to talk about.  And I found that my sister was a real person, a human being who was actually much like me.  We shared a wry sense of humor, we could both be bitches at times—don’t ask the brothers how many times—and we realised that we liked each other.

We live across the country from each other now;  I have kids and she has dogs.  But when we get together, the magic is there.  We laugh, sometimes we cry, we bake brownies and eat chips…we love.

I have a sister.

The Music of the Site

I just noticed something…
At the end of my street, there is a blob of cement that looks like a musical note, left over from a repaving project.   And I thought, laughing…look at that;  music can be found anywhere, can’t it?  Even in the most mundane places, there it is.  I spent the rest of my walk humming to myself.
People sometimes pose the question:  If you had to give up one of your five senses, which would you choose?  And I used to think, oh–touch.  I could live without the ability to feel things.  But not to be able to sense the texture of a warm blanket, the smoothness of a baby’s skin?  No, thank you.
Smell, then.  We don’t always think of smell until the ripe odor of garbage permeates our consciousness, but what about roses…oh damn, what about single malt whisky?  Nope.  Not that one!
Ok, taste.  I could give up taste.  I’m always trying to stay on a diet, anyway;  that would help a lot, actually.  But then…chocolate?  Mac and Cheese?  Not to taste my morning coffee?  Oh hell, no!
And now we’re up to the big two–sight and hearing.  Between those, how could I give up the images of this amazing world in which we live?  The ocean at dawn?  Mist lowering over the mountains?  The varied colors of the city?  Not a chance!
So, hearing, then?  I could stand not to have to listen to the din of traffic, the prattle of that annoying woman in the office who never, ever shuts up.  But…music.  I judge the worth of a historical movie by its music:  Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves.. That guy on the High Street in Inverness who sang “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables with so much passion and beauty that I found myself crying.
It’s an impossible question to answer for a writer.  We need all our senses to express the beauty, the sorrow, and the mystery of this life, and I hope I never have to experience the loss of one.
A musical note in the pavement calls to sight, hearing, and touch, and opens the imagination to the possibilities inherent in the simplest things this world has to offer.  It’s those small pleasures, or pains, or amusements, that make life interesting.
It’s why I write.


I’m currently on a pilgrimage to Scotland, land of my ancestors and setting of my novel. Full Scottish Breakfast.  Here are some pictures of Rait Castle, home of the Rait Castle Ghost.  Looking up at the window from which she fell, it fills me with a sense of awe that she really existed.  She is a part of history, and I hope I’ve done her justice in the novel.