Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Colon is Down but not Out!

How Time Flies! Riley, Cassidy 2013 (courtesy of Facebook)
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I have said very little about Colons and Semi-colons in Mosaic Moments because, basically, they simply are not used in American fiction. And yet as I edited manuscripts for authors more classically trained than most Americans, I couldn't help but think it's a shame these punctuation marks are as shunned as the flu. They do come in handy at times.

Why the American fiction ban? I think it's because colons and semi-colons remind readers of school days—of term papers, theses, dissertations. Of teachers from knuckle-cracking nuns to scowling towers of proper English in both public and private schools who accepted nothing less than perfection. Adhering to the American spirit of rebellion, the minute most of us left school, that was it. No more "academic" writing ever again. 

And yet, as I read through some truly excellent manuscripts where these punctuation marks were scrupulously observed, I couldn't help but feel sorry that they seemed to be gone forever in most of the genres I write. 

In most of my historical writing, however, I have been using semi-colons ever since I started doing my own editing in 2011. Some independent clauses just demand to be attached to each other, and I cannot accept putting a comma between two complete sentences. And that is exactly the situation semi-colons were designed for. 

And somehow I found myself adding semi-colons, even occasional colons, to work other than Historicals. All examples below are from Royal Rebellion, Book 4 (and final) of my Blue Moon Rising series, and my current Work-in-Progress. It's mixed genre - SciFi, Fantasy & Paranormal.

What is a semi-colon? A semi-colon (;) is used as punctuation between two complete sentences which are tied together in thought or action. No, you do not want to use a whole slew of them. That really does look academic. But there are places where you want two complete sentences connected more closely than a period allows. That's where you use a semi-colon. Also, as you will see in the examples below, the semi-colon is flexible enough to be used for clarity in a sentence with too many commas and, with discretion, in other situations when a comma just isn't enough. I should add that I strongly believe semi-colons have no place in dialogue. Ever. It's just plain wrong. Usage screams against it.That's not what this useful little squiggle was designed for.

What is a colon?  A colon (:) indicates that an explanation—more details, if you will—follow the colon. The semi-colon and colon are never a substitute for each other. The semi-colon is a short stopping point, usually between two full sentences. The colon is a "go" point. It tells readers that the words that follow are an elaboration on the sentence already written. 

To put it another way, a semi-colon is a short "Stop." A colon is a "Go." A "Heads up. More details coming."

Semi-colon Examples:

A heavy array of jewels peeked out from between the jet black strands flowing over her bosom; rings winked from every finger.  

Tall wrought iron gates parted; the sleek black limm drove through, moving at a majestic pace down the long tree-lined drive that led to Killirin. 

Gradually, shoulders slumped; each drew a ragged breath.  

The three stepped away from the shuttle, their progress across the open field shielded by a cloak of invisibility that to them was no more than a transparent shimmer; to a viewer in full sunlight, a momentary distortion, a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t refraction.  

He came close to snapping “Sir,” as he held out his hand for the papers of the perfect Reg specimen—tall, well-built, blond, blue-eyed; this one, handsomely aristocratic.

An example of a colon and semi-colon in the same paragraph:

And Eric, though not fully grown, had caught the nuances: the experiment had exceeded expectations, to the point of some believing it to be a disaster; others, that K’kadi, for all his strangeness, could do more with the powers of the mind than anyone in Psyclid’s thousand-year history.

Colon Examples:
Grace note:  Until recently, I've followed the American fiction "rules" and substituted a dash or a period. But after being exposed to so many colons, correctly used, by authors I was editing, some of it seems to have rubbed off. There are places where a colon just seems right, where it reads better than a dash. And—oh horrors!—I've begun to slip one in here and there.

Knowing him as well as she did, she could easily picture his thoughts: he was Regulon Rear Admiral Rand Kamal, son of Rogan, nephew of Darroch, and he fydding well should have known about something this big.

The basic language on Deimos was English, closer in form to Psyclid than the language spoken by the Regs. B’aela could make out many of the signs: clothing, restaurants, pharmacies, jewelry stores, a bakery. 

Which he did so well that he was aide to three Governor-Generals of Psyclid: Yarian, Grigorev, and Kamal.

The other captains Yuliya and Erik had seen only in passing: Dorn Jorkan of Centauri, Mical Turco of Lynx, Gregor Merkanov of Scorpio, Dagg Lassan of Pegasus.

But she would. Because that’s what they’d been doing for years: fighting, enduring, fighting, bearing the burden, fighting, bearing children. 

She ticked them off on her fingers: “Two sorcerers. S’sorrokan, leader of the rebellion. A Reg Fleet admiral, nephew to the Emperor. A mistress to a king. Former mistress,” she added judiciously. “A princess who has the Gift of Telekinesis. Another princess who has the Gift of Destruction. And we mustn’t forget the witch and the werewolf.”

To himself, he added: And that’s why the rebels are going to win.

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  1. Thank you for standing up for punctuation, though I confess my age when I add that your title made me think immediately of medical procedures.

    I use colons and semicolons all the time. I have no idea why a writer would want to discard useful tools just because they were taught in English class; commas and periods were taught there, too, and we still use those. I could eat most of my meals with just a spoon and a sharp knife, but forks are available, and very handy, so I use them.

    This post reminds me of two writing questions I'd love to hear you expound upon--or point me to where you've done so already. One is the use of the dash. If that was taught in school, I don't remember it. I like the dash and use it a lot (almost always an mdash, for what it's worth), but I usually feel as if I'm cheating somehow, using it indolently instead of figuring out the "proper" punctuation.

    The second is sentence fragments, which I see you are not afraid to employ. I was brought up to avoid them, though I know that used judiciously they can add power and flavor to the writing, and I confess there are plenty of times when their use just feels right to me. Are there rules about sentence fragments other than "don't use them?" Formal vs. informal writing, maybe?

    (There, by the way, is the secret to how I write. I remember little of what I was actually taught--and I hated writing in school--but was blessed with parents who spoke well and a childhood spent reading mountains of well-written books. That background rarely fails me when it comes to writing, though I'm hazy on the rules. I learned to read and spell without phonics, too; I do both very well, but it's something I more learned than was taught. Very handy for me, but harder when I want to explain to others.)

  2. Linda, I've probably mentioned dashes more than once, but the primary date is June 16, 2011. Fragments I'm quite sure I only mentioned once, as they are so very much a part of modern fiction that I didn't feel they needed any more validation. Fragments - see May 16, 2011. Both are in the series, Nuts & Bolts.