Aliette de Bodard: In Defense Of Uncanny Punctuation

800px-Durian-1

Picture credits: Kalaiarasy, “Durian: the King of Fruits, Malaysia”

It is time for Aliette de Bodard, author of the newly-released The House of Binding Thorns, to speak of uncanny punctuation. Adjust your semi-colons. Prepare your emdashes. 

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(With thanks to Fran Wilde)

Semicolons are a bit like durians.

Now, I don’t mean that they’re a fruit, that they’re spiky or that they have a particularly distinctive (and lovely!) smell. What I mean is that they seem to be a hate-it-or-love proposition among writers: some people will fight to the death on their behalf, and some others will immediately turn away in disgust when presented with them.

I’m in the camp of people who love durian, and you can have a guess as to where I fall on semicolons!

All right, I’ll give you a clue. Here’s a formative text I read as a child: the beginning of Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, describing hero d’Artagnan.

A young man — we can sketch his portrait at a dash. Imagine to yourself a Don Quixote of eighteen; a Don Quixote without his corselet, without his coat of mail, without his cuisses; a Don Quixote clothed in a woollen doublet, the blue color of which had faded into a nameless shade between lees of wine and a heavenly azure; face long and brown; high cheek bones, a sign of sagacity; the maxillary muscles enormously developed, an infallible sign by which a Gascon may always be detected, even without his cap–and our young man wore a cap set off with a sort of feather; the eye open and intelligent; the nose hooked, but finely chiseled.

And a passage a little further on:

[Athos] added that he did not know either M. or Mme. Bonacieux; that he had never spoken to the one or the other; that he had come, at about ten o’clock in the evening, to pay a visit to his friend M. d’Artagnan, but that till that hour he had been at M. de Treville’s, where he had dined.

(…)

Athos was then sent to the cardinal; but unfortunately the cardinal was at the Louvre with the king.

This is where my love affairs with semicolons started, and I’m afraid it’s never really abated. Rule #1 of my personal operating manual: if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, and it’s hard to argue with the author of The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and countless other classics I reread so much the binding started giving out.

Semicolons help my prose by letting it breathe. I like long sentences, and there are cases when a comma won’t necessarily do, because I need a hierarchy of pauses: if you look above at the first sentence I quoted, you can see that using only commas would have made it very confusing. It could have been punctuated slightly differently, by removing nearly all the commas and replacing the semicolons by commas (aka “downsizing”, a trick I often use when I need to prune out semicolons), but it wouldn’t have been the same sentence, either (actually, parts of it would need to be rewritten). The way it’s punctuated makes it flow differently.

I also like rhythm in my shorter sentences, and there are also cases where I need a longer pause than that indicated by a simple comma.

For instance, here, in my book The House of Binding Thorns:

You’re jealous, Thuan thought. They’re closer; closer than you are to your mother.

I could most certainly get away with a comma instead of the semicolon, but the text doesn’t quite read the same. The longer pause means the last clause has a stronger highlight, and that’s exactly what I need here, as it’s the key to the relationship between the characters. I could also have used a period for emphasis, but again it’s not the same effect.

The most common objection to use of semicolons I see is that they’re clunky; the second most common is that their usage should conform to style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style, or various grammar manuals.

I did say I was in the camp of fighting to the death for semicolons, right? Let me get out my trusty sword [1].

sword

All right. *flourishes sword in a vaguely threatening manner* [2] First off, no such thing as clunky: to be sure, you can use semicolons to excess (true story: all my drafts go through a semicolon removal pass where I ruthlessly uproot the tangle of excessive punctuation in order to let the remaining semicolons and em-dashes shine [3]). But to simply remove them altogether from the writing vocabulary is a little like saying you’re never going to use a drill with a hammer action to affix something to a wall — it’s fine until you actually hit the concrete wall!

And second off… Rigid grammar is possibly fine for non-fiction, when the prose is meant not to get in the way of the content. But fiction is about the prose (in many ways it is the prose). The existence of the prose is a defining difference between fiction and other media such as movies. It’s very easy to set the scene in a movie by panning over a background, impossible to go as fast or give quite the same impression using prose. But prose can get into a character’s head and render thoughts into words seamlessly, whereas movies have to resort to voiceovers for this.

Writers can make a deliberate choice to not let the prose get in the way of the plot (which is a prose choice, not a natural or necessarily desirable thing. It really depends on the story and the writer). I’m subscribing to the “nice effects in prose” school of thought: I like my prose poetic, an integral part of building atmosphere. Usage manuals aren’t meant for novels–or no one would ever have written Les Misérables or Ulysses, or even Ursula Le Guin’s or Patricia McKillip’s books; and for me, if rigid grammar gets in the way of prose, then I know where I stand [4].

Rule #N in my operating manual [5]: be ready to bend or break the rules if a. fully aware of the consequences and b. sufficiently experienced. In fact, for me rule #(N+1) is “breaking the rules is often necessary.” Novels are vast and complicated and organic, and you can’t write one by ticking checkboxes or following all the rules on some invisible list.

Writing fiction is when I play with prose. It’s not a demonstration of how good I am at using the language “correctly” (I got over that when I left high school!); it’s a demonstration of how good I am at using it, full stop. It’s about stretching the language if needed, in service to the work.

Rule #(N+2): semicolons really are like durians. I really like using them, and you will pry them out of my cold dead hands.

What about you? What do you think about semicolons? How do you use them (or not!) in your own writing?

*assumes battle stance*

*gathers up allies*

semicolonProtectionSociety

Sketch: Fran Wilde


[1] It is actually my sword, though it’s a ceremonial one associated with my alma mater.

[2] I have a sword. I never said that I knew how to use said sword!

[3] The quick and dirty way to remove semicolons: am I ready to break up the sentence? If yes, replace with a period. If not, can I replace it with a comma (and possibly suppress commas to help legibility)? If still not satisfactory, would a colon help?

[4] I’ve kept my sword. One can never be too careful.

[5] Shh. I’ve lost count of how many rules I actually have.

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Aliette de Bodard: Website | Twitter

The House of Binding Thorns: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

33 comments

  • I heard the bugle sound for the semi-colon call to arms, and came a-runnin’. I even brought my katana! (NB: it’s a training iaito, so only the pointy end is really sharp enough to kill semi-colon-heretics and unbelievers with, but I’m willing to get stabby if necessary.)

    I fall into the “love semi-colons and probably OD on them” camp. In fact, I’ve read a few stories recently in which the sentences ran on, or the clauses in the sentences weren’t satisfactorily separated by a comma or a full stop (period) and really wished the author had adopted a few neglected and abandoned semi-colons in need of a good home.

    Part of me wonders if perhaps some of the dislike exhibited by writers might come from fear and lack of understanding. We’re often wary of what we don’t understand; change can come slowly when old habits die hard (via stabbing). I’d like to see more writers take on a “use, don’t abuse” method when approaching semi-colons. If anybody would like to borrow some of mine, I have loads to spare! 😉

    P.S., Will also rally to the defence of the Oxford comma.

  • Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut thought of semicolons: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    Personally, I like them in moderation, but never in dialogue.

  • Love semi-colons and those authors who know how and when to deploy them correctly. Georgette Heyer was profligate in her use of these and needed to be, given her adoration of long, long, long sentences. A damned good writer whose books still sell briskly 30+ years after her death.

  • I agree. I fall in love with fiction for many reasons: character, plot, storyworld, and yes, prose. If an author can sing to me through written word, I’m in love. And if semi-colons let the music flow, then compose with them. (And your prose is poetry, so keep doing what you’re doing. It sings.)

  • April 5, 2017 at 10:17 AM // Reply

    I adore semicolons! When I first began writing I used them clumsily – knowing only that I loved the feel and rhythm they added for me; knowing not what they were “supposed” to do.

    Then I came across that popular Kurt Vonnegut quote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” It confused me (I like transvestite hermaphrodites just fine and think they represent everything they choose to represent, and I didn’t go to college or even finish high school) while adding a new level to my relationship with semicolons. I was no longer simply, blindly in love. Now I had secret worries and concerns about my love; a defensive nature that lacked confidence.

    Semicolons and I had entered a complicated phase in our relationship. But just as I was contemplating breaking up rather than figuring it out, pretty much my go-to when relationships confuse me, I stumbled on the book “A Dash Of Style” by Noah Lukeman. It helped me to understand that relationships with semicolons are often – most often – complex and personal. The book gave me permission to make a lifetime commitment to experimenting with (IMAGINE SEXY JOKE HERE) and enjoying the pleasurable rhythm, look, and mood semicolons offered me. (IMAGINE ADDITIONAL, CLEVER AND SOPHISTICATED, SEXY JOKE HERE.) Thank you for writing this, Aliette! I hope many writers consider your counsel. As a reader I love it when relationships with punctuation are taken to uncanny places!

  • Semicolons are wonderful. It broke my heart when I heard Kurt Vonnegut disparage their use. Before there were personal libraries for common folk, there were storytellers, and how do you scribe the story that was told? With punctuation that is musical notation for the reader.

  • OMG, I LOOOOOOOOOOVE semicolons! But my beta-readers/critiquers like to yank them out to break up the sentence, or replace them with commas and… and then I put them back in. I use them the same way you do. I’m so glad I’m not alone. I also enjoy a few adverbs.

    • Heh, that reminds me of a scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke—the people of Iron Town cut down the forest around their settlement, and every night the monkey-like forest spirits come out to replant the trees while the townspeople sleep.

  • I used to write abstracts for a legal database and semicolons were vital to enable me to list the contents in a simple text field. But these days I just use them for the fun of it.
    They also have an amusing name, if deep down you’re very childish. Like me.
    Semi (snigger); colon (fnarr-fnarr).

  • I was intrigued by the reference to Dumas based on the English translation, which might or might not have been representative of what he originally wrote. Turns out that Dumas’ punctuation is even weirder in the original. (Find it on Gutenberg and search the text for “Quichotte”) It starts something like “A young man…— we can sketch his portrait with the stroke of a pen: imagine to yourself[…]” Yes the consecutive ellipsis and emdash are in the original (in the edition on Gutenberg, anyway).

  • I do like semi-colons, especially when other punctuation will not quite do. I agree with those who dislike them in dialogue (including internal narrative, which is the example the author uses for her own work).

    Because most of my writing is done online, however, I typically use the em-dash in place of the semi-colon.

    The semi-colon can be difficult to recognize on a computer screen, and while the sentence structure often heralds the use of a colon, the semi-colon is unexpected. If you read quickly, your eyes may auto-supply the colon, and you will parse the text correctly. But the semi-colon will tend to be read as a comma instead, and the reader may interpret your writing as blather or be forced to re-read sections, both of which are annoying.

    Now, Oxford commas are a different matter. They are beautiful, life-sustaining accents of clarity.

    To omit them is to introduce awkwardness and ambiguity– and usually not in an “Oh, how cute” kind of way.

  • I see a lot of amateur manuscripts and estimate that fewer than 10% of fiction writers understand proper use of semicolons, and far fewer readers know (or care) what they mean. Unfortunately, the abuse gives beginning writers permission to distribute the marks willy nilly throughout their writing as though they were discovered in a Walmart discount bin. The samples cited work well, but they are originally French, a language whose rhetorical style lends itself more easily to a loose, airy narrative than English or German. So I side with Vonnegut. And NEVER in dialogue.

  • Back many years ago when I was in university, a teaching assistant made a comment on one of my papers, saying one was only allowed to use semicolons a maximum of once per page. I have delighted in breaking that rule ever since.

    • A friend of mine has tried to persuade me that I should ration my semicolons and em-dashes to only one or one set per paragraph. I’m still debating whether I’m going to allow that as a guideline; it’s just not my natural preference at all.

  • I’ve had a soft spot for semi-colons ever since I took a ‘what punctuation mark are you’ test in my overly leisured youth.
    Being a Franciscanish Anabaptisty pacifist, I will not resort to weapons of violence in defence of the semi-colon; but I will happily embark upon acts of semi-colon-related civil disobedience. (So nyah nyah nyah to you, Mr Vonnegut. And lay off the hermaphrodites.)

  • “To arms! To arms! Have your heard Rohan’s call for aid?”

    I, too, shall fight to defend semi-colons and Oxford commas, no matter the cost.

    But what of the adverbs? Will no one have the courage to stand for them?

  • I like to use them. But I still get an uneasy feeling when I use one to separate clauses, and both clauses are not independent. Catholic guilt, I guess; you can’t overcome my upbringing. It seems I just did.

  • I’m an enemy of rigid rules, period. That said, there are some conventions writers really need to know, such as how to punctuate dialogue so it’s clear when it begins and ends. Readers get used to some of these conventions, and get jerked out of the story when their expectations are not met. So whether to break a rule can really be a judgment call. Definitely: you best serve your prose if you know the rule, and the consequences of breaking it. And by the way, I’ve been reading an awful lot of wonderful books that are unself-consciously replete with adverbs.

  • I love semi-colons used well, which is to say, in well-written prose, but I can’t say I’m quite as passionate as some other supporters here, who sound like they might fling them in just every old where because they’re pretty. I have known young poets to do the same with ellipses (actually “dots” because they tend to use more than 3 in a row). I’m also a big fan of the colon: if it was good enough for Tolkien, it’s good enough for me.

    Vonnegut’s admonition about semi-colons, like Elmore Leonard’s about not starting with the weather, is one reason I gave up reading “Ädvice to Writers”,

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