Semi-Colons, Colons, Punctuation. Who Cares?

Copy-editing Drama

I’ve heard it said that success is in the details, in those small decisions, those unsexy bits of minutiae and countless day-to-day choices — or, in the case of a writer, in the thousands of page-to-page decisions made in every story or every chapter of a book. And in details such as copy-editing and proofreading.

Judging from the complaints on Amazon and “blastings” of ebooks that have the audacity to appear in public with errors, be they spelling, punctuation, typos or formatting, I’m not alone in my belief in the importance of details. Oddly, though I’m an editor and publisher, I’m a whole lot more tolerant of some errors than are our Amazon reviewers, possibly because I know that typos hide from even the best proofreading system. I can be quite unfazed by errors in a book.  I mentally correct them as I go and forget ’em.

But not so much when it comes to colons and semi-colons.

That’s a significant detail: the choice between colons and semi-colons.

You see, as I’m reading along, a colon raises my expectations. Here, it says, comes something interesting, good, or in some way important. Hold onto your sox. This is what I’ve been talking about, and here it comes: the payoff. 

But then there’s no payoff. the colon wasn’t supposed to be there. Maybe there was no punctuation necessary at all. And ah! The waste of the drama of the colon! And the letdown.

Conversely, I recently ran across semi-colons used in place of colons. The colon was the cadence intended. The semi-colon sat there instead, and as any reader would, I cruised on by it; therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I came upon the Aha! moment buried in the sentence.

Would other readers miss that moment, I wondered. Would they just zip on by and a few paragraphs later stop, perplexed, lost?

Punctuation is all about details, using those odd little marks to clue the reader in on pace, intention, meaning and correlations. And lots more. In fact, both semi-colons and colons can do more than I’ve talked about here, lots more. They are powerful little dots.

The magic, I think, of all punctuation is that whether readers know the rules or not, whether they know the colon’s job or not, they respond to those marks on the page.