The usefulness of semicolons is apparent in all types of prose, yet the mark is not universally liked or adopted. Many writers gladly include it in their set of grammatical and rhetorical tools, and some positively adore it, but others avoid it altogether or even go out of their way to insult it.
Much as I love Kurt Vonnegut, I think he was wrong to dismiss semicolons, unpleasantly, as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”. In a video of the writer restating his line we hear a hall full of students receiving it with laughter and applause. But I doubt many of them have pondered the matter at length and reached the same conclusion. Maybe they’re in thrall to a literary hero, or they cheer the comparison because it’s so politically incorrect and pointedly outlandish. You can see why it would appeal to students.
Vonnegut’s anti-semicolon stance had an effect. A few weeks ago the NYT published one person’s account of his love-hate relationship with the punctuation mark. The hate was inherited directly from Vonnegut; the love came later, through experience and reflection and the corrective influence of William James’s beautifully clear yet complex writing style.
In a subsequent article at the New Yorker, Mary Norris admits having avoided semicolons for a long time because she didn’t know how to use them. Anne Enright did likewise. I suspect this abstention is quite common, though as an editor I notice that just because someone doesn’t know how to use semicolons, it doesn’t mean they won’t sprinkle their text with them anyway.
Being fond of semicolons, I ration them in my own prose, often removing one or two from an early draft where alternative punctuation improves a paragraph’s rhythm or balance. Curious about how far my fondness extends, I counted the semicolons in my last ten posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, not counting quotations. The range was 0–3 and the total was twelve, or a little over one per post – less than I would have guessed.
Diana Athill once called the semicolon “a sort of extra-strong comma”. This reflects its traditional use to mark an oratorical pause longer than a comma’s and shorter than a full stop’s, as in this line from William Golding’s novel Free Fall: “In some ways you were wise; but you were cruel.” It has other uses, of course: it’s more than just a “supercomma”, and much more than “absolutely nothing”. I bet Vonnegut never used a winking smiley either.Email this Post