How to use a semicolon

How to use a semicolon

How to use a semicolon

Advice given is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM).

Semicolons are probably the most misused punctuation mark.

If you don’t know how to use a semicolon, you’re not alone. Love them or hate them, some writers regularly confuse semicolons with commas, most likely because they’ve never been taught the correct usage.

While commas can be a bit slippery – editors sometimes disagree over whether one should stay or go, especially in fiction – the wonderful (I love its elegant little tail) semicolon has only three distinct uses. Once you’ve grasped those three concepts, you’ll find them much easier to use correctly.

Three ways to use a semicolon

 


1. Join two closely related independent clauses.

 

Note: An independent clause is a sentence that can stand alone. It’s sometimes called a main clause.

Correct: Kelly loves to eat pickles; she enjoys their salty, tangy taste.

These are two independent clauses with their own subjects and verbs. Each clause could stand alone if you decided to use a full stop instead.

Incorrect: Kelly loves to eat pickles; their salty, tangy taste.

This is an independent clause followed by a phrase. The phrase ‘their salty, tangy taste’ is acting as a noun phrase, so you might ask ‘What are you saying about their salty, tangy taste?’

Correct: For Joe, jogging had long ago lost its appeal; his waistline now paid the price.

Here we have two independent clauses. Each can stand on its own. Perfect!

Incorrect: For Joe, jogging had long ago lost its appeal; his waistline now paying the price.

Here, we have an independent clause followed by a subordinate clause, which has a subject and finite verb phrase (paying the price), but again it doesn’t make any sense without being attached to its independent clause.

A simple fix would be to add a comma and conjunction as follows:

Correct: For Joe, jogging had long ago lost its appeal, so his waistline now paid the price.


2. Join two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb.

 

  1. I said I wasn’t going to do the test; however, I relented and did it anyway.
  2. Dave was always missing practice; consequently, he was put on notice.
  3. You can usually depend on the timetable; nevertheless, there will be exceptions.

*Note: Conjunctive adverbs are always followed by a comma.


3. Clarify a complex list with internal punctuation.

 

To avoid confusion, a semicolon helps to separate items that carry their own punctuation.

Correct: Mary went shopping and bought a blue tote bag; a bright-orange, square beach towel; a pair of sandals, which gave her a blister; and two pairs of funky sunglasses, each with a different design.

As you can see, some items within the list carry their own punctuation:

  • A bright-orange, square beach towel
  • A pair of sandals, which gave her a blister
  • two pairs of funky sunglasses, each with a different design

Incorrect: Mary went shopping and bought a blue tote bag; a bright-orange bag; a beach towel; a pair of sandals; and two pairs of funky sunglasses.

In this example, commas would be a better choice of punctuation.

Note: when using semicolons to separate complex lists, the last item always has a semicolon and an ‘and’.


Picture of gold punctuation marks

How to punctuate dialogue

Advice given is based on the Australian Style Manual (ASM).

Dialogue punctuation is an area of fiction writing that often baffles new and experienced authors alike.

Here you will find simple explanations on how to punctuate and lay out your dialogue, plus the difference between direct dialogue, indirect dialogue and internal dialogue.

Single or double ‘quote marks’?

Single and double quote marks (also known as quotation marks) vary from country to country and publishers usually have the final decision to fit their in-house styles. Generally, Australian and UK publishers prefer single quotes, whereas US publishers prefer double, though this can still vary. The main thing is to be consistent in your choice. It’s easy enough to complete a Find/Replace in Word if you eventually decide to switch. I have used single quote marks in these examples, but you can use your own preference.

What goes inside dialogue quote marks?

Only two things should be placed within dialogue quote marks:
A. What a character says out loud (direct speech)

‘Don’t sit there. The paint’s still wet,’ he said.

B. Dialogue punctuation (e.g. comma, full stop, question mark, exclamation mark, ellipses)

  1. ‘I’m not sure if I like this,’ Ruth said. ‘It’s scary.’
  2. ‘Haven’t you done this before?’ John asked, looking amused.
  3. ‘No. Wait!’ Ruth took a step back. ‘It’s … a lot higher than I thought.’

What goes outside dialogue quote marks?

Dialogue tags  (said, asked, called, murmured, yelled etc.)
Dialogue tags are used to flag which character is speaking and often help the reader understand the tone of the character’s dialogue.

  1. ‘Will you be joining us for dinner?’ he asked.
  2. The waiter called out, ‘Sir, you left your jacket.’
  3. She leaned in and whispered, ‘Don’t forget to lock your door.’
  4. ‘Well, if you’d told me,’ David mumbled, ‘we could have worked it out.’
  5. ‘Don’t be so hasty to decide,’ Verity said. ‘You still have plenty of time.’

Notes:

  • Dialogue tags are always punctuated with a comma, unless the speech is interrupted and a new sentence begins with a capital letter (see example 5).
  • Dialogue always starts with a capital letter, unless a sentence is interrupted by a tag or action and the same sentence then continues. In this case, use lower case to continue the dialogue. (See example 4).
  • Dialogue tags are also known as attributions.

Action tags (an action the character does)

Action tags are used to flag which character is speaking, and sometimes to aid characterisation. They can also provide an alternative to repetitive dialogue tags.

She shook her head. ‘It’s not the same.’
‘It’s over here.’ Tom pointed to the shelf.

but when using both an action and a dialogue tag:

She shook her head and said, ‘It’s not the same.’

Notes:

  • Action tags are always punctuated with a full stop.
  •  Action tags are sometimes called action beats.

Dialogue without tags

If it’s clear which character is speaking, it’s not necessary to use a tag at all.

David and his brother stood looking at the broken window while their father glowered. ‘Which one of you kids did this?’

Direct Speech – Indirect Speech – Internal Dialogue

Direct speech is dialogue spoken aloud and is enclosed in quote marks:

‘Good job, David,’ she said.

Indirect speech is reported speech and does not require quote marks.

Jason said he would be there, but Susan had her doubts.

Internal Dialogue is the equivalent of thought and requires no quote marks.

Mark wondered if this was such a good idea. What if it all went wrong?

Interrupted Dialogue

When dialogue is interrupted by either an action or thought, use em dashes to set off the interruption, but do not use commas.

Interruption by action

‘When I applied for this job’—she pursed her lips to calm herself—‘you said you would support me.’

Interruption by indirect thought

‘Take three drops of rose oil’—he wondered if he had the amounts right—‘and blend it with the other ingredients.’

Interruption by  direct thought

I should have eaten when Mum offered—now that my stomach is grumbling—but I hadn’t been hungry then.

Interruption by another character’s dialogue

Gerry grabbed his satchel and turned to Kathy, who was balancing the cash register. ‘So when you’ve finished doing that, you’ll—’
‘Yes, yes. Bank the takings, and lock up the shop,’ she said. ‘Get going or you’ll miss your train.’

Trailing off dialogue

When a character trails off their speech, use an ellipses with one space prior.

Mary’s brow furrowed. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking. Maybe if I …’ She bent to pick up the broken plate, then sat on the kitchen stool weeping.

Coming next:

Quotes within quotes

Image source: Pixabay

Editing: A Strange Life

Editing is a strange life

Editing is a strange life

Any writer knows that the creative mind is a tenuous friend, given to disappearing just when you need it most. You think you’ll never speak again, that the relationship has desiccated into a hot crumbly mess you could use as chili flakes. But then, like a cool fifty bucks you find in the pocket lining of your favourite jacket, your friend, your motivation, creativity, angel, muse — whatever you like to call it — comes sneaking up from the land of who-knows-where and suddenly you remember why you’re a writer. Editing is seen as different — the sobre part of the process. But it’s just as easy to lose yourself.

Freelance Editing is solitary. You forget the time and day. You forget what you did yesterday, what you did this morning. The only thing you never forget is there’s chocolate and coffee in the kitchen (red wine anyone?).  And since I’m an adult, how I take my breakfast caffeine is my business.

Being trusted with someone else’s work is also strange. Editing isn’t the black and white, right or wrong, clickity-clack straight railway line job people often perceive it to be.

‘Really? You’re an editor? What do you do? Fix spelling and grammar and stuff?’

‘Sure. But there’s also syntax, and voice — the personality of the author or narrator that shines through the text. There’s meaning — what are they trying to say? There’s arcs — story and character. For non-fiction, there’s flow and fact. How does it all hang together? And there’s the author themselves to consider: how you communicate with them without breaking their spirit.’

*pause to check the person is still awake*

‘There’s a subtlety involved. It’s subjective and rule bendy. It’s a tightrope walk: you’re dealing with someone else’s energy, their hopes, their passion. Sometimes a manuscript is akin to a first child.’

‘Zzzzz.’

‘Hello? You still there?’

Chops are tough. Not the meat kind, the Kill Your Darlings kind. Cut, cuts, cuts. Even though you know words have to go because they’re repetitive, or misused, or misplaced, or they drag the pace into a pit of no return, the process can be uncomfortable. Yes, cuts make the text and story tighter, and therefore give the manuscript a better chance of getting published (and that’s what we’re paid to do), but there’s also a chance the cuts are going to whack a sensitive author’s ego over the head with a wet fish. A large, smelly, heavy tuna fish. The upside is, if you handle that fish gently (perhaps fillet it before serving) the author will get over it and on with it, and show their appreciation.

Handling authors gently is a talent in itself. In my first year of study, I thought it would be fun to insert some humour into my feedback comments on an author’s manuscript. I didn’t personally know the author I was assigned to, and as it turned out she took great offence. It made me stop and reflect how I would’ve felt receiving that kind of feedback in my early days of writing. I subsequently apologised, several times. Luckily she’s a gracious person and we’re still friends. Lesson learnt. Gently does it.

Clear Communication: I’m probably an over-communicator. I need to know the author understands exactly what I’m doing for them. Even if it’s not what they’ve initially asked for — because I’ve had to extrapolate what they actually need done. My worst nightmare is a client getting their manuscript back and going WTH????? To avoid this, I respond to each client in writing, laying out exactly what we’ve verbally agreed on: the type of editing required, the word count, rates, expected completion dates and response times. It’s a fail-safe for down the track, especially if the direction of the project changes along the way.

Don’t Hide. When I was starting out, my first project was a piece of cake: fiction with a clear story that only needed a light line edit, plus a tad of structural editing. My second project was enormous and I accepted it not realising the time frame I quoted was way out of whack with the amount of work required. Apart from giving a fixed price and doing myself out of quite a few hundred dollars, I was feeling stressed because of the time it was taking me — it was a clever and complex story but with an unusual and inconsistent voice that required nearly every line to be edited. To counteract my fears of ruining my reputation (by missing the deadline and disappointing my client), I kept in constant contact with him, being honest about the work I was doing and the time it was taking: I wanted to be thorough and not rush through. Being honest paid off and his appreciation for being kept in the loop meant there was no annoyance. This took an enormous pressure off me.

Boundaries. I have a setting on my phone that cuts off communication between certain hours. It’s easy for an author who’s in a panic to forget what time it is, or what day it is (sound familiar). I tell them my hours of availability, my response time, and I stick to them. Sometimes it takes a bit of training, on both sides … I’ll just check my emails after dinner … wham! I’m thinking about my client’s curly question all night. Occasionally, I need to send a gentle reminder when a client is persistent. If I’m clever I can give them a distraction to keep their ferreting brains, or need for approval, at peace — a research project, or clarification of something unclear in their text.

Content is a personal decision. Sometimes a project might go against the grain of your beliefs, knowledge or advice. I once turned down an edit on a manuscript because I felt the content appeared to be misogynistic. It surprised me how strongly I felt about it. I pondered whether to be honest with the prospective client, or make up an excuse as to why I couldn’t do it. I chose honesty. Luckily, the author was an intelligent person and went away to reconsider his angle. He came back to me with a completely different manuscript and we developed an open, on-going working relationship (insert happy sigh here).

So it’s a strange life I’ve chosen. And if you’ve chosen it too, whether you’re a writer or an editor, like most creatives, you probably doubt yourself daily, or wonder where your next job will come from. When things are rolling along nicely and you have a mountain of work, you allow yourself to smile, to love what you do. When things are uncertain and you feel like a fraud, tell yourself:

Be patient.

Be brave.

Be yourself.

Strange is good.

 


kids_reading

The sound of proofreading

First impressions count, and nothing says ‘novice writer’ more than sloppy mistakes.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve cringed because a silly blooper has crept through my work. Usually, it’s because I’ve been a bit blase.

Truly, it’s a form of laziness, not bothering to go back and read and re-read your own words before setting them loose on the world. But sometimes, no matter how careful you’ve been, there’s still an occasional slippery sucker that’s got by you. More often than not, it’s a simple missing article like ‘a’ or ‘an’ or a tense issue like ‘has’ or ‘have’. Super easy to miss. That’s when a fresh pair of eyes comes in handy and our proofreading service is just what you need.

Asking friends or workshop buddies to review your manuscript is a great way to test your writing on fresh eyes, but you should be able to bring your work to a decent standard on your little old lonesome first.

I’m not talking about big picture issues like story and structure here; I’m talking about the actual words on the page.

Have a look at this:

mistakes

Did you pick up the two mistakes? Maybe you saw one but not the other (look for ‘the the’ twice). This is a great example of how our eyes can deceive us and see only what our mind wants us to see.

Solution 1: Read your work aloud. Nobody has to hear you, so there’s no need to feel embarrassed. Just tuck yourself away in a quiet corner, with a coffee, tea, wine, whisky—whatever does it for you—and verbalise every word on the page. Trust me, it works; mistakes will jump out at you.

Solution 2: Get your computer to speak it for you. How? Have a look at this link: Text-to-Speech Command. It only takes a few minutes to set up this facility and once it’s been added to your Word tool bar, all you have to do is highlight your text and click the ‘speak’ command. Voila! Grab a notepad, relax and listen. Not just for errors but for sentence structure and flow

Solution 3: Use our professional proofreading service. Just let us know your word count and we will provide you with a fixed quote.


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