Who says readers have trouble with semicolons?

Several years ago I read something written by an editor who stated she always takes out all colons and semicolons when editing fiction manuscripts, because readers don’t know how to read them. This really bothered me at the time (really, are readers that stupid? I think not), and as I was editing a work in progress over the last several days and adding a couple of semicolons, it popped up from my memory to bother me again.

How is it possible for an adult American who is literate enough to read for pleasure to not know how to read a semicolon? It’s a comma that’s been working out, my friends. That’s all. No mystery, no secret handshake, no two-year contract. You pause mentally, just a little longer than you would pause for a comma, and then you go on. And whatever comes after the semicolon is related to what came before it, just as it would be for a comma, but the pause is longer.

A full colon is a comma on steroids. You pause longer than you would for a semicolon, but not as long as you would for the nuclear option (that would be a period). The information after a colon is still related to the information before the colon, such as this construction: a category, followed by specific items in that category. See how cleverly I sneaked in that colon? And I’ll bet that all you lovely, intelligent readers didn’t stumble at all.

Maybe if we tell people it’s a deep, dark secret, the knowledge will spread. A semicolon is a buffed-up comma. A colon is a comma on steroids. A period is, well, a punctuation A-bomb. (The exclamation point is the H-bomb of punctuation, the place nobody should ever go unless he/she is willing to risk the Mad Max consequences.)

Back to the editing….

1 comment so far

  1. Charlene Teglia on

    I like semicolons, but some publishers don’t allow them or actively discourage them. I don’t get it; it’s a slightly longer pause than a comma, as you said, but not a full stop as in a period. *shrug*

    And I’m so glad you’re doing well. Stay that way, please!

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