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 .
All right. *flourishes sword in a vaguely threatening manner*  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 ). 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 .
Rule #N in my operating manual : 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*
Sketch: Fran Wilde
 It is actually my sword, though it’s a ceremonial one associated with my alma mater.
 I have a sword. I never said that I knew how to use said sword!
 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?
 I’ve kept my sword. One can never be too careful.
 Shh. I’ve lost count of how many rules I actually have.
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