Q. I have completed my first literary novel. I am working with a well respected editor who has edited many modern novelists. In my writing, I have followed Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style in my use of the semicolon. My editor claims that my uses are “incorrect.” Here is a typical example from my book: “When the spring comes, you tell us we cannot work until we pay our dues; but the problem is, we cannot pay until we work.” The editor’s “correction”: “When the spring comes, you tell us we cannot work until we pay our dues. But the problem is, we cannot pay until we work.” My editor has deleted every semicolon in the manuscript. Can someone explain what is happening to the lowly semicolon and why it gets no respect?
A. Semicolons tend to be frowned upon in fiction. An editor who doesn’t allow them at all is overly rigid, however, since they are sometimes useful and even necessary. As for the sentence you quote, a semicolon isn’t wrong (see CMOS 6.59), but it’s a matter of taste whether the best choice is to start a new sentence or use a semicolon or even a comma before but.