Colonoscopy…Er, Uh, The Study of Colons (and Semicolons)

Your multi-talented host has asked (read: demanded, amidst plentiful gloating due to her recent word war victory) me to weigh in on the topic of some seriously sophisticated (read: confusing) punctuation and its use in the world of fiction. You’ve got it, I’m here to talk about colons (:) and semicolons (;).

Now, before I lead you into the maze of splendour that is the colon-family of punctuation, I guess I should provide some creds.

I’m Courtney, Dr. Punctuation to you, from the blog Syncopated Synonyms and, more recently, the extreme book blog Read, Scribble, Revise. My credentials are many and varied, but include an almost-Master’s Thesis (yes, the Dr. in my title is fallacious. Deal with it) in English Literature (all but Thesis, a situation soon to be remedied), and a long-standing, borderline-gluttonous obsession with the written word.

You can get more specific details about my qualifications as a Punctuation Expert here.

Now, onto the featured presentation:

The colon has two basic purposes in life: emphasis and emphasis.

Let me explain. The colon can emphasize by setting something apart: the focal point of the sentence. It can also emphasize by pointing the reader toward something specific in list form: months, names, details.

Of the two punctuation marks (colon and semicolon, just to be clear), the colon is infinitely more usable*. Why? Because it is a punctuation mark that happens in everyday life. It crops up normally in dialogue (which is, by the way, the main place *I* would use a colon in fiction, anyway) and that makes it less obtrusive than the semicolon. Plus, the average joe kinda-sorta knows what the colon does and how to use it. So, in dialogue, it might work. But–as I’m sure you’ll notice if you pay a bit of extra attention to the next conversation you have/overhear–people don’t normally fill their dialogue with lists. So, Dr. Punctuation recommends sparing use only.

Now, outside of dialogue (in which people sometimes but rarely make lists), I’d use the colon even more sparingly. It might seem too didactic to your readers, a glaring attempt on the writer’s part to cram information into the story. Information needs to be incorporated naturally, so that the reader can really feel like s/he exists in the world of the story. This leads me to a general principle of fiction writing:

Rule of Thumb: Elements of Style/Mechanics that interrupt the story and remind the reader that s/he is not in the world of the story are BAD (in that they are working against you, the writer).

Hint: if you want to maintain the informal, natural flow of your story, you might consider using one of my favorite pieces of punctuation–the emdash. The emdash can be substituted for commas, colons, semicolons, and parentheses. It is the image of informal versatility. Because it is informal, it fits eeasily into prose and dialogue. But watch out, obsessive use can visually break up your text, which can ultimately interrupt the flow of the story.

The semicolon is a tough cookie to crumble. It has one, very specific use; it combines two complete sentences that are so connected in meaning that they need to be closer than the period can allow them to get. It’s alot like marriage, in that respect. The comma doesn’t work, because that would be the equivalent of trying to shove two individual, independent people into the same body. The period doesn’t work, because it ignores the connection these two sentences have.

That said, the semicolon is kind of intimidating to writers and readers alike. It doesn’t work very well in dialogue because most people speak in a broken, scattery way. Unless they are speechifying, and even then they tend not to be overly coordinated. So, Dr. Punctuation recommends limiting semicolon use to the prose/narrative portions of your fiction, rather than using it in dialogue.

There is further distinciton to be made herel; while the colon is equally at home in genre and literary fiction (and should be used sparingly in both), the semicolon is definitely a unique and kind of niche bit of punctuation**.

The semicolon is right at home in literary fiction, because it matches the sophistication of the subject matter. And, while it should not be used frequently, it can appear with some regularity in literary fiction.

In genre fiction, however, the semicolon doesn’t have much ground to stand on. It stands out like a tuxedo on the beach. Not that it never has a place inthe genre world, it just probably doesn’t want to leave its BMW and luxury apartment filled with William Faulkner novels.

This has been Dr. Punctuation, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s.

*In genre fiction. Remember that this is just my humble opinion before you fly into a howling rage.

**I happen to think that the semicolon is too formal for genre fiction 90% of the time. Again, this is really just my opinion. Maybe you’re writing formal genrre fiction, Maybe you’re reincarnating Miss Marpole. Who am I to judge?

10 thoughts on “Colonoscopy…Er, Uh, The Study of Colons (and Semicolons)

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