Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why you need to be the smartest person on your team

This appears to be my week to cast a critical eye over the work of others in my field. This time, I was shown some advice given to a writer, and if you know anything about my attitude toward semicolons and present participial phrases, you will understand why this left me weeping in a dark room with smelling salts. Oh, the humanity!

I'm going to change the example to protect the innocent (and the guilty, but that's just a side effect). Here's the advice, in a nutshell.

Semi-Colons join clauses of equal weight. For example a semi-colon can form a compound sentence when used in place of a conjunction:

She wanted to chop down the dead oak and plant vegetables in that corner of the yard.

Changes to,

She wanted to chop down the dead oak; planting vegetables in that corner of the yard.

Okay, breaking it down. Yes, semicolons can be used to conjoin independent clauses, and when we use them that way, they replace the conjunction. That much is correct. But it's a grammar error to use them "to form compounds" in the way described by these sample sentences. This may have been considered acceptable semicolon use centuries ago, but it has not been the rule in living memory. So, barring certain exceptions involving historical writings, we would never do this today.

Yes, you need to work with an editor to make sure your work is as good as it can be. And it's likely you'll learn new things from your editor. Ditto critique partners, agents, and anyone else who is a member of your team. But you have to know your craft well enough to be able to spot their errors, too.

I was going to break down the sample sentences to explain why these are making me twitchy, but in keeping with the theme of this post, maybe you should do it. There are two glaring problems with the revised sample sentence. Post them in the comments!



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

That new sentence is a GROANER. For one, what comes after the semi-colon isn't even a full sentence. For another, what's being linked here is her wants -- chop down the tree and plant veggies. No semi-colon needed, or a comma, either. Nothing. And third, by using the -ing form of the verb, you're introducing a whole new, separate action. You're not linking the chopping down and the planting anymore. Plus,there's an expectation that something will follow the concept of planting. Why is it suddenly so important? And if you explain, please do so in the same sentence... "planting vegetables in that corner of the yard was the new plan, one she liked very much." That thought is BEGGING to be finished.

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

The original sentence never contained two independent clauses, so it was never a candidate for using a semi-colon in the first place. The revised sentence does not contain two clauses of equal weight. What it contains now is a main clause with a PPP, which would be set off with a comma if punctuation is required at all. Secondly, there's no reason whatsoever to use a PPP in that sentence. The first version was fine the way it was.

Ashlyn Macnamara said...

Correcting myself. The first sentence isn't fine as it stands. There's a kind of cause and effect going on that the 'and' doesn't quite capture.

She wanted to chop down the dead oak tree so she could plant vegetables in that corner of the garden.

Edittorrent said...

Okay, so far, Ashlyn and Susan have nailed one big problem: the part after the semicolon is not a complete sentence on its own.

But there's another big problem there. Even if we change the semicolon to a comma, the PPP is still wrong. Anyone know why?


Maria Grace said...

Pretty sure you don't have simultaneous action here. The tree is in the corner of the garden where she wants to plant vegetables, so she can't plant and want to chop down the tree at the same time. She also can't plant the garden and chop down the tree at the same time.

You advice here is spot on. I recently had one beta/proof reader who tended to introduce more errors than she caught. PPPs and semicolon were her favorite additions to my manuscripts.

Thank you for all the advice and instruction you supply here!

Willow Wood said...

I think what's left to address is the use of tense. 'She wanted to chop down the tree', meaning she hasn't done it yet.

It then goes on to say 'planting vegetables in that corner of the yard', implying she's already planting the vegetables even though it just stated she cannot for a tree is in the way.

I think. Semi-colons aren't my strong point either.

Leona said...

Problem 1, horrible example for semicolon usage. GRRR

As stated, there isn't a complete thought after the semi-colon in the "fixed" sentence.

Two, the items are only related as a progression of her wants, but not related actions. Action 1, tree cut down. Action 2, planting.

Action one has to be done so that action two can happen, but they're not the same.

From reading this blog, I've gotten pretty good at spotting bad usage! And when in doubt, use the period or cunjunctions. LOL

Edittorrent said...

You guys make me proud! The second big problem is that you can't use a PPP to describe sequential actions, and these are sequential actions. Good eyes!


Edittorrent said...

Oh, and "wanted to" is definitely adding confusion, I agree -- but we're still looking at the same error.


James Pray said...