Ahead of participating in an online course on Jane Austen’s life (which I wrote a post about), I reread many of her works and read those I had not.
Among other things I noticed about her writing style was her frequent use of the semicolon.
Take a look at these randomly-selected passages from three of Austen’s novels:
“She was shown into the breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise. That she should have walked three miles so early in the day, in such dirty weather, and by herself, was almost incredible to Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley; and Elizabeth was convinced that they held her in contempt for it. She was received, however, very politely by them; and in their brother’s manners there was something better than politeness; there was good humour and kindness. Mr. Darcy said very little, and Mr. Hurst nothing at all. The former was divided between admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion, and doubt as to the occasion’s justifying her coming so far alone. The latter was thinking only of his breakfast.” — Pride and Prejudice
“She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.” — Emma
“Though Charles and Mary had remained at Lyme much longer after Mr and Mrs Musgrove’s going than Anne conceived they could have been at all wanted, they were yet the first of the family to be at home again; and as soon as possible after their return to Uppercross they drove over to the Lodge. They had left Louisa beginning to sit up; but her head, though clear, was exceedingly weak, and her nerves susceptible to the highest extreme of tenderness; and though she might be pronounced to be altogether doing very well, it was still impossible to say when she might be able to bear the removal home; and her father and mother, who must return in time to receive their younger children for the Christmas holidays, had hardly a hope of being allowed to bring her with them.” — Persuasion
In what I have found thus far, Austen’s use of semicolons appears to be fairly typical for the time period.
That said, as a historical fiction writer, one of my main goals with any piece I’m working on is to capture the essence of the Regency Era. A lot of this attention is placed on my characters’ dialogue, working in slang and cant from that period as well as the way something might be phrased (such as saying “Do not you think so?” in place of “Don’t you think so?”).
However, semicolons are something I have been using sparingly, in part because I’m not exactly sure how to use them.
In the spirit of curiosity, much as I did when I wrote about the Oxford Comma, I figured I would jump in and explore what the purpose of the semicolon is.
What is a Semicolon?
A semicolon indicates a pause between two clauses. Typically, semicolons are used to connect these two related clauses into one sentence.
Semicolons may also be used to link two independent clauses that are connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases, or between items in a list containing commas (such as modifiers or adjectives relating to those items).
That’s it. There’s no great secret to them, nor any major trick to implementing them into your writing.
What a Semicolon is Not
If you’re familiar with The Lonely Island, you might know their song titled Semicolon.
Take a listen here (fair warning, the lyrics are pretty explicit).
In the lyrics, the guys list off a bunch of things followed by a clarification or definition of what they’ve just said.
However, as they’re told, they are not actually using a semicolon but instead are using colons.
Colons introduce or direct the focus to a specific idea, as The Lonely Island does.
Like a semicolon, colons can also link sentences together, but only if the second sentence summarizes the first.
- Typically, do not capitalize the word following a semicolon (There were squirrels at the park; we watched them climb into the big oak tree).
- However, there are exceptions to this rule (Days or Months, Proper Nouns)
- A semicolon takes the place of a conjunction (We saw a hawk, and it swooped down to catch a mouse. VS We saw a hawk; it swooped down to catch a mouse).
As with the Oxford comma, it might take a little while before you figure out whether or not a semicolon will work best for you; I myself am still learning how they work.