Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Punctuation is your friend!

Recently, a writer bemoaned "agents hate semicolons"on Twitter.

I was so shocked to hear this, I reached into the Punctuation Pocket of my Word Hoard to reassure the waiting semicolons. No only do I not hate them, I brought cookies to show how much I love them.

I left Otto, the Czech speller, to clean up the resultant mess: sn;ick;er;;;doo;;;dles;;;;;mall;;oma;;rrs;;;;;;choco;;;olate;;;chips;;;;

The idea that anyone who wrangles words would hate any one member of the punctuation platoon is perplexing to me.

Punctuation is like the nitrous oxide used in The Fast and the Furious; you start with a fast car and an expert driver but it's the NOS that provides the extra kick you need to hit the finish line ahead of everyone else. Which is exactly how you think about querying, I know.

Deft use of punctuation can give your work power and punch and panache.

To rob yourself of any piece of punctuation is idiotic.

If an agent says s/he hates semi-colons, my guess is s/he's seen them abused too often, but that's like blaming the victim for the crime.

I don't hate ellipses even though some writers fling them about with abandon; as if they'd bought a barrel, suspended it over their computer and dripped them down on the manuscript like faux freckles.

Generally I frown on that ... but not always.

My favorite piece of punctuation is the interrobang.

And there are some lovely new ones to add to our repertoire

But the bottom line is this: beware of blanket statements from anyone, but particularly from agents, about what the agent horde does/does not like. Lacking any kind of context, or punctuation indicating irony or sarcasm, you might well misinterpret.

Plus, there are only a few industry standards.

There are a LOT of preferences.

Mine, of course, should be industry standard.


Mister Furkles said...

The real problem with semicolons is that primary school doesn't teach grammar now. We once learned parts of speech by diagramming sentences; that's not done anymore. How is a child to learn adverbs from adjectives from adverbial elements if grammar isn't taught in school. What if the teachers don't know English grammar? Is it any wonder that some writers use semicolons where there ought to be periods or commas?

An appalling statistic: in 1950, the median student entering ninth grade had a vocabulary of 25,000 words; in 2000 the median student entering ninth grade had a vocabulary of 10,000 words. (Okay, that was two statistics but alone they don't tell a story.)

Amy Johnson said...

I do love a well-placed semicolon. What relief to learn that they don't offend our Queen! Thanks for the link to the new lovelies, Janet. I want to use them all! Judiciously, of course.

AJ Blythe said...

Poor old semi-colon. So many don't know how to use it properly. I remember having it drilled into me by my ninth grade English teacher. Now it's my friend.

And love the snark mark. No special key needed either so simple to use. And because it's unknown I can add snark to my emails and no-one will even know.~

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This post makes me want to write a new book full of interrobangs.

My guess is that agents who "hate" semi-colons actually dislike sentences that run on forever and ever. Like our queen said, this is not a punch at using a semi-colon; it is a punch at misusing punctuation. I do that too. Writing fast early before coffee. It's a mess.

Steve Forti said...

I wouldn't dare criticize the semicolon in fear of more time spent in Carkoon (and I'll starve before eating kale). But I'll say that I do not use them. Personal preference, maybe? Don't like how they look? *shrug* I will 100% of the time use a period and a new sentence.

I do enjoy me a good ellipsis, though. I think I'm a fairly visual writer, so an ellipsis to me is the written representation of a dramatic pause. Love me some dashes, too. Oh, and interrobangs are dope. They should be a default key.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I feel like the interrobang is too-often overlooked and needs a few champions. Indeed, my spell check doesn't recognize it as a word.

Weirdly, in elementary school, I noticed other classrooms learning sentences mapping/diagramming/etc. but my classroom (part of something called the Launch Program) did not. In fact, i feel like I was never properly taught grammar? I did, however, have an early childhood fondness for the classics, and read so voraciously that the middle school librarian allowed me to take out more than the typical three book limit, so I suppose I learned my grammar properly. In action. (How I've since used it has been a series of sometimes questionable personal decisions. Perhaps what one might refer to as "developing a voice", perhaps not.)

RKeelan said...

One of my favourite critique comments ever was on this line from a short story I wrote:

She stirred at her name; I turned and fled.

The comment was: "Never a need for a semi-colon in fiction." Brings a smile to my face every time. (I have a weird sense of humour.)

Jennifer Mugrage said...

"A series of sometimes questionable personal decisions." I love it. There's a title there.

I love semicolons; I used to use them all the time. They can be used well, as in "She stirred at her name" above, but ... I've found that in my own writing, overuse of them equal laziness. It causes me to split the difference between compound sentences and short declarative sentences. Whereas when forced to choose between the two, I get more sentence variety and hence a better rhythm. So I've weaned myself off semicolons.

Nate Wilson said...

Ah, the interrobang. Dreyer may not approve, but it's my favorite as well. Even if I don't have one tattooed between my shoulder blades, like one of my (non-writer) friends.

Someday, Janet, I'll have to share my short story featuring the pompous Captain Interrobang...

Panda in Chief said...


Claire Bobrow said...

Like Steve and Panda, I'm a visual writer and official Friend of the Ellipsis. I'm not sure I use them correctly, but I love them. The interrobang also floats my boat.

Timothy Lowe said...

Anyone else wonder what Steve Forti would do with a flash fiction contest based on punctuation?

MelSavransky said...

Ellipses are period gangs and I fear them.

Adele said...

I always think interrobangs look like the writer couldn't make up their mind. Plus, the mark looks cluttered and it doesn't give me the same interior message as either "?!" or "!?" I suppose the sarcmark and the irony mark are useful to prevent flame wars, but I've never heard of either of them, and likely the people who indulge in flame wars haven't, either. That said - give me a nice clean semi-colon and a clutch of ellipses! I love 'em both.

Janet Reid said...

Oh Timothy Lowe you have set my mind a'whirling!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Timothy!? Yes, we all thought it - what would Forti do with an interrobang or the word interrobang? However, we knew better than to say it. Now the shark has seen. We are doomed.

Kate Larkindale said...

I love semi-colons. Unfortunately my publisher's style guide won't allow them, so my editor always weeds them out. Every time I rewrite the sentences without the semi-colons I feel like my writing loses some of its unique rhythm. And I really don't understand why they refuse to allow semi-colons in the first place. They are such a useful piece of punctuation.

Steve Forti said...


(%#@&!!) “;>.”

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Craig F said...

To me a semicolon is the same as the weasel word and. It is a spot where two short, concise sentences get crammed together. Most agents, including you, My Queen, advocate short, concise sentences.

The problem isn't in their use, it is in their overuse. Keep track of those you use and keep them minimal.

One of these days I will make a place for an interrobang. Hasn't happened yet, but my writing day is young. Ellipses have found space in several things I've written, normally at the end of a chapter.

Casual-T said...

Many of the punctuation marks in the linked mentalfloss article seem to be less colorful (and less cutesy) versions of today’s ever-so-popular emojis. Acclamation Point = Smiley Face; Love Point = Heart/Kissy Face; Doubt Point = Hand-on-chin-with-one-eyebrow-raised Face; SarcMark = Winky Face; etc. The main difference, of course, being that most everyone understands what a smiley face is meant to convey, whereas a drunk double exclamation point might not enjoy such widespread recognition.

But, more importantly: All of those marks are intended to explain or clarify what the text is meant to mean. Wouldn't this indicate that, perhaps, the text itself is not as strong as it should be?

I second what Adele said. The interrobang, besides looking cluttered, doesn’t differentiate between ?! and !?, which, in my view, convey slightly different emphases.

PS: Em-dash FTW!

Timothy Lowe said...

The joke's on me. I just lost an hour of productivity trying to decode Forti's comment.

John Davis Frain said...

I'll translate my interpretation offline, Tim. It's NSFW.

John Davis Frain said...

You know what Elmore Leonard said about the interrobang?

I don't. I was hoping someone else would.

Steve Forti said...

Person A: A period is better than a semicolon.
Person B: The fuck you say?
Person A: I said that periods are better then semicolons.
Person B: (swearing to themself) Semicolons are better than periods.
Person A: (slack-jawed stare)
Person B: (smugly) hashtag semicolon
Person A: (flips over the table in disgust)

Steve Forti said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AJ Blythe said...

Oh, my gosh, Steve,, I'm so glad I've popped back here in my lunch break. Just as well I'm working from home and my dog is deaf because my snort would have startled a few.

Janet, I think Steve beat you to the punch line.

Dena Pawling said...

OMG I have enough trouble using common English words and common English punctuation. I've learned how to occasionally insert a well-placed common English emoji. But Forti is light years beyond.

But, since I've learned how to use 21st century computer-speak, I copied (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ into google translate and clicked "detect language". It came back as "English detected" and translated it as (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

If that's English, I give up.


Jennifer R. Donohue said...

If nothing else, this, my friends, is what we in the business call a table flip: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Methinks perhaps Mr. Forti has been inspired by the suggestions (or taken exception to them)

Brenda said...

I thought it was a koala bear looking at a bridge.
I confess to ellipses abuse.

Janet Reid said...

I surrender.
Just 100% hand over the reins of word domination to Steve Forti.