Writing 101: Colons, Semicolons and Ellipsis

Is it okay to use semicolons? What does it mean when you add an ellipsis to your story? Do colons have a place in prose? These are the questions that writers have been debating for many years, and some have some very strong opinions. When it comes to the punctuation rules of fiction...well, what are they?

The Semicolon

"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." These were the words of Kurt Vonnegut, a well-known master of the literary arts. Writers are often opinionated -- occupational hazard -- but does that mean Mr. Vonnegut is right, or just passionate about his own style of prose? Other writers have waxed poetic about the meaning one of the semicolon; one well-known writer even likened it to God. 

"How hideous is the semicolon," cried Samuel Beckett. The answer? When it's used correctly, the semicolon isn't at all hideous. But use it correctly. Semicolons are used to connect related sentence fragments, joining two phrases together to form a single whole. The semicolon is not a substitute for a comma, but it can also be used in a long sentence where many commas are present to break up different, but related thoughts and descriptions. For example: Together, the two sisters were a study of dissimilar qualities, one fair and sunny in nature; the second dark and morose as a rule. The semicolon is still used to connect the fragment to the whole, and frankly it looks a lot better than a long string of commas.

The Colon

No, not that thing down deep in your gut -- the colon is an important punctuation mark, albeit very infrequently used in most prose. The colon is only used when you are presenting something to the reader. For example: See? A better example, something you'd actually see in fiction prose, might read thusly: There was one thing she had to do before leaving the house for ever: tell Margaret good-bye one last time. The colon is the waypoint between the setup and the pitch.


When you start adding dot-dot-dot all over your novels, things start to get dicey. Technically, an ellipsis only ever means one thing when you see it: words have been omitted. It's commonly used when quoting people in articles, for instance. Cheryl Burke of the police department stated that "the criminals have been thoroughly questioned...and our office is still going over the data." In this example, the ellipsis represents all the words that have been taken out. However, in fiction writing the ellipsis has come to mean something else entirely.

Often, fiction writers use an ellipsis to indicate a pause, or a sentence that has trailed off into nothing, and it most commonly appears in dialogue (ex: "Hello...is anyone there?", "But I thought that you said..."). Some writers are passionately against the use of the ellipsis, but when used appropriately it's a perfectly viable punctuation. If you're using the ellipsis with additional punctuation, for example a question mark or a quotation, always place it inside the punctuation (ex: "Does anyone know...?").

Punctuation Rules

There are certain rules writers have to follow when it comes to punctuation, but you should never cross any punctuation off the list because some don't like it. A writer should never limit themselves. If you feel like using a certain punctuation mark, use it! After all, it is your story.

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1 comment:

  1. i tend to use ellipsis a lot in dialogue for pauses and such.