Not sure if it's just my idea but I rarely see colons and semicolons in dialogue (especially in modern novels). Is it because they don't simulate normal speech? Because their use is more a semantic one?

If I'm wrong, could you please give me some examples of authors who do this?


7 Answers 7


"The point of a Horcrux is, as Professor Slughorn explained, to keep part of the self hidden and safe, not to fling it into somebody else's path and run the risk that they might destroy it — as indeed happened: That particular fragment of soul is no more; you saw to that."

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", J. K. Rowling

"Lord Voldemort liked to collect trophies, and he preferred objects with a powerful magical history. His pride, his belief in his own superiority, his determination to carve for himself a startling place in magical history; these things suggest to me that Voldemort would have chosen his Horcruxes with some care, favoring objects worthy of the honor."

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", J. K. Rowling

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    Indeed. Rather than debate what academics and agents think, why not see what best selling books are doing? DW Smith would be proud of you :) Oct 28, 2014 at 10:49

Linguists have found that semicolons, colons, and even commas, are on the wane in everyday usage, and that many speakers no longer understand the use of a semicolon. Non-writers – and you will see this in emails, forum posts, and other written messages – often do not use punctuation at all, but rather let all "sentences" flow into each other, only putting rows of exclamation marks for emphasis.

These are of course extreme forms, but those may be your readers, if you write genre fiction, and knowing that some of your readers may not readily understand the difference between a comma and a semicolon or a full stop and a semicolon might as well make you hesitate to use it.

On the other hand the semicolon is still in heavy use in literary fiction and academic writing, so if you aim for an educated audience, by all means make full use of all the tools that language provides.

An edit to answer Alexandro Chen's question in the comment below:

John Rudolph, literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, writes in a blog post on the "Great Semicolon Debate":

Personally, I’ve had a negative opinion of semicolons, and as an editor I would regularly strike them from authors’ manuscripts. My feeling, echoed by every copyeditor I ever worked with, was that in kids’ books they stood out like sore thumbs. Indeed, I loved the comment from the sixth-grade teacher, who wrote that when she sees a semicolon in a kid’s paper, it’s invariably plagiarized. It’s just not a device that feels natural to a kid’s way of viewing the world, and as such, should probably be avoided at all costs.

But now that I’m an agent and working on a lot of adult projects, I’m finding that in certain contexts and genres, semicolons not only make sense but fill a vital role. Certainly in nonfiction, I agree with the author [of a Times article that inspired Rudolph's blog post] that the deft use of a semicolon can suggest a connection that other forms of punctuation—especially my beloved em-dashes—can’t quite pull off.

With YA being somewhere in between MG (no semicolons) and adult (with semicolons), you are in a grey transitional area where I'd say the use of semicolons will depend on the "adultness" of your topics and writing style. In a light and funny summer romance I would maybe avoid them; in a reflective, thought-provoking, difficult book they might be a valuable stylistic instrument.

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    This makes me sad. :( I wish authors would help poor users of English to learn these constructions instead of dumbing the language down. Especially since I'm constantly told that our language is defined by the content of books. Not by, y'know, text messages. Oct 27, 2014 at 17:41
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    I suppose wed better just stop using punctuation in fiction altogether then Those useless bits of ink and pixels thenmaybewecanstopusingspacesandcapitalstoocausethosetakewaytoomuchefforttoreadandwrite
    – MiraAstar
    Oct 27, 2014 at 17:55
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    I would suggest not talking down to your readers.
    – A E
    Oct 27, 2014 at 19:15
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    @MiraAstar: well it worked for e e cummings
    – A E
    Oct 27, 2014 at 19:16
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    xkcd.com/1414 Oct 28, 2014 at 1:50

The real answer here is:

Whatever makes your message the most clear to your readers.

Learn to use punctuation as properly as possible, because this is what people learn at schools. Since they learn it there they tend to understand it as common usage and it's easier for them to gather meaning. And since most people learn to read at school, a common set of expectations arise.

Imagine if everyone defined their own meaning for the period. Some might use it to indicate a contraction such as don.t (don't) and others might use it to indicate a capital word such as .sally (Sally.

It could get to be a ridiculous mess. So, the answer is:

Learn the rules of writing that the largest number of readers will recognize.

Isn't it interesting that no one worries this much about speaking?
So, if you make your writing sound very similar to your speaking, then you'll probably match the greatest percentage of readers anyway. I generally speak without any use of a colon or semi-colon.

Besides those symbols originally simply indicated length of pause for a speaker who was using notes.

Can you read this:

"I'm extremely annoyed," said Ted.

"What do you mean? Is it because the mail is late today," Julie asked.

"What? No." Ted waved a piece of paper frantically in the air. "The city just hit us for 6 months of taxes. All at once."

"Oh no."

"Yep, it's that new semicolon law; the one that charges $5.00 for every time a person speaks a sentence with a semicolon in it."

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    "Ted!", gasped Julie. "Wait! Stop! You just used another semicolon in your last sentence!". "But Julie!", exclaimed Ted. "In YOUR utterance you used FOUR exclamation points! And according to the Exclamation Use Tax law those cost us $10 EACH!". As calmly as she could, Julie said, "Theodore - we must compose ourselves. Not only did you use more exclamation points, you also used capital letters, which cost $2 per letter if not at the beginning of a sentence or a proper noun". "Thank you, Julia", responded Theodore. "I shall endeavor to be more careful...". "DAMMIT, TED! ELLIPSIS TAX!!!" :-) Oct 27, 2014 at 21:23
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    Th3 r3@l qu3st10n 1s: c@n y0u r3@d th1s?
    – Pharap
    Oct 28, 2014 at 12:32

I disagree that a colon does not simulate normal speech. A classic example would be when I enumerate something to my dialog partner:

"Hey Joe, we offer the following colours:

  • Gray
  • Blue
  • Yellow."

There, maybe even with semicola in a single line:

"Hey Joe, we offer the following colours: Light Gray, Dark Gray and Eternal Gray; California Orange, Funky Orange and Citrus Yellow; Abnormal Blue and Abyss Almost Black Blue."

Trying to construct these without colons and semicola makes them look funky and emotionless:

"Hey Joe, we offer the following colours. Light Gray and Dark Gray. California Orange and Citrus Yellow."

I am not sure if the latter is even correct English, but in a language where it's incorrect, one would have to reconstruct the whole sentence:

"Hey Joe! Light Gray and Dark Gray are the colours we offer."

Personally, I don't talk like that.

  • In your second example, commas would be used to separate items in a list. Semi-colons are only used in a list to avoid confusion in the case of there already being commas in the items listed.
    – MiraAstar
    Oct 28, 2014 at 13:19
  • @MiraAstar: I'll refine my example in that regard. Oct 28, 2014 at 14:05
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    You could probably avoid the need for the bullet point list by simply removing the words "the following colours", making the sentence something along the lines of "Hey Joe, we offer Gray, Blue, and Yellow." Alternatively, "Hey Joe, we offer Light Gray, Dark Gray, California Orange, and Citrus Yellow."
    – user
    Apr 9, 2019 at 9:29

The sad truth is that semicolons are slowly dying. NGrams

However as one of the few people who still attempt to use semicolons in writing (and a programmer) I sincerely hope they don't die out. Ultimately a lot of it boils down to a lack of proper teaching; teachers these days do not often teach students the correct use of semicolons.

In an attempt to stop them dying, I'd like to say:

"Using a semicolon isn't hard; I once saw a party gorilla do it."

  • Rather ironically, if one extends the NGrams graph out another 8 years (apparently the end of the data), an uptick appears. Looks like we're back to 1972! Oct 29, 2014 at 2:23
  • @JeremyMiller Oops, that'll teach me to be lazy. It's still quite low but I'm glad it's on the up. I'd like to believe programming is partly responsible but somehow I doubt it.
    – Pharap
    Oct 29, 2014 at 19:16

Some authors do their best to worm some semicolons and colons into a character's dialogue; however, since you can't see how someone talks in reality, it is more common to use the predictable punctuation like periods, commas, question marks and exclamation marks.

See what I did there?


I personally use them all the time; wherever a comma splice feels right, I try to use a semicolon instead. (Although comma splices may fit better in dialogue)

"Where'd you get the sling? It's clearly handmade."
"Arthur made me it. Shoulder only hurts when I move or touch it; this helps a ton."
"Except when it gets hit by PVC pipe."
"Yeah." I smile, then sit up.

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