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“AND”, “BUT”, THE COLON AND SEMI-COLON IN FICTION

July 20, 2011

One of my pet peeves is narrative sentences that start with “and,” and “but.”  Whenever I edit someone’s work, I always challenge the writer on those sentences.  Though some may disagree with that, I feel that starting a sentence with “and” or “but” is just plain bad English.  It is like starting a sentence in the middle of a thought.  In addition, there is always a better way to construct a sentence.  There are plenty of instances where one will find sentences starting with those words yet most of the better editors will get rid of them, especially with first-time authors.

Jim went to the store.  And it rained.  This should be written:  Jim went to the store in the rain. Or:  When Jim drove to the store, it rained.

Mary had plenty to bitch about.  It was her birthday and everyone forgot.  And it was raining.  This could be changed to:  Mary had plenty to bitch about.  Everyone forgot her birthday.  On top of that, it rained.

She cursed all her life.  But, that didn’t mean she would tolerate it from Randy.  Instead it could be something like:  She cursed all her life, but that didn’t mean she would tolerate it from Randy.  Or:  She cursed all her life.  That didn’t mean she would tolerate it from Randy.

There are a hundred ways to avoid using And and But to start a sentence.  Another way to avoid using But is to start a sentence using However.

When it comes to dialogue, all bets are off.  The rules of grammar don’t apply.  The difference is, not to abuse the rules. T hough it may be good to write how people talk, reading how people talk can be annoying.  However, that’s a different presentation!

*          *          *

Technical writing conveys information or teaches something.

Fictional writing is reading for pleasure.  Your job is to make your prose as easy to read as you can.

Colons and semi-colons are just an excuse for breaking up a long sentence without using a period, similar to and.  They’re used extensively in technical writing.  However, for fiction, they are unnecessary and downright annoying.  Fiction is supposed to be fun and easy, not complicated and technical.  Remember, your writing should be at the elementary school level, to about the 6th grade level.  Long sentences, especially long sentences complicated with colons and semi-colons can jerk the reader right out of the story, and the mood.

Wherever you have a colon or semi-colon, change it to a period or restructure the sentence.  Make it two sentences or even three.  It’s not that hard!

Colons and semi-colons can mean several things.

#1: Lists.

#2: The sentence is too long.

#3: The author is trying to educate the reader instead of entertain.

#4: The author is trying to write to a level higher than elementary school level.

Jeremy hated three things with a passion:  Loud music, dating and onions.

List list list.  True, this is a small example, but the realities can get complicated to the extreme.  I’ve seen sentences like this expanded to a paragraph covering an entire page.

Jeremy stretched and turned to Wendy.  “The three things I hate the most are loud music, dating and onions.”

In this case I turned a telling statement into showing by making it dialogue.  The point is that the colon could be eliminated many ways.

In fiction, breaking some rules is unavoidable and not unhealthy.  However, there are some rules like these that step over the line.  They are in a long list that go along with misspellings, incomplete sentences and other examples of bad grammar.

There is no reason to ever start a narrative sentence with And or But.  There is never a reason to ever use colons or semi-colons in narrative either, except when quoting something that already has one in it, such as referencing a…

Technical manual.

As I’ve said before, nobody expects you to write perfect.  Learn these things as you go along but for goodness sakes, write first and worry about it when you edit! As you gain your chops, you’ll get better at catching things like this and will find them less and less when you do your next edit. Learn these techniques early on, but don’t freak out and dwell on them to the point where you stop writing over it. Learning these techniques will come with practice.

Final thoughts.  It’s hard enough to break into this business. Don’t give an agent or editor another excuse to single you out as a rank amateur and throw your work in the slush pile.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2011 2:08 am

    Excellent Fred, I could have used you as a a teacher.

    • July 24, 2011 7:23 pm

      Felix, thanks so much! It’s taken me a long time to get here and I’m still learning.

  2. July 23, 2011 5:07 pm

    Fred, good advice. Whenever I open a sentence with And or But, I think of you. But, because of you, I try to not use the semi-colon. And I never use a colon. 🙂

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