linguistics and lexicography Love English

Semi-attached to semicolons

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.

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Stan Carey

14 Comments

  • I’d be surprised if he did. Years ago, a friend of mine called semicolons “salacious flirts” because of this development in their usage.

  • I’d feel quite disadvantaged if I had to do without semicolons; I feel they are an invaluable aid to more nuanced writing. Like you, I will sometimes go back and remove some, or add some in where I didn’t at first. Perhaps I’m guilty of over-using them. I might not know, until a paragraph is complete, just how exactly I want it to sound and *feel*, and whether a semicolon is called for.

  • Duncan: Yes, that rings true. Often it’s only in editing or rewriting that prose assumes its fine-grained form and feel, and it’s due in part to putting our command of punctuation to good effect. Jeanette Winterson was right when she called semicolons a “marvellous invention”.

  • I think it is more accurate to describe the semi-colon as a mini-fullstop rather than as an ‘extra-strong comma’, because the units on either side need to be grammatically complete (unless you are using verbless clauses etc). A corpus example at random: “There are a lot of theories out there; we just need some facts…” A comma there would probably be considered ‘incorrect’ – an example of a run-on sentence or comma splice, much warned against by language teachers. This of course is not the whole story.

    I do have trouble with colons though. For example, in the penultimate line of your post you use a colon after ‘of course’. I can see why you chose it, but it’s a tricky area, and I look forward to your post on the subject. (Apologies if you’ve already mentioned it – I haven’t looked it up in the archive.)

  • Gill: Yes, the semicolon often behaves like a “mini-fullstop”, a usage that’s probably more common than the “supercomma” style demonstrated by the Golding quote.
    Teachers understandably warn against comma splices, but I wouldn’t normally consider them incorrect — just sometimes not the most appropriate style. (I’ve written at length about comma splices on my own blog, with a growing list of literary examples.)
    I’ve yet to devote a post to colon usage, but I’ll try to get around to it. Thanks for your interest!

  • I so love the semicolon! What’s not to like? It’s such a useful little tool, more sophisticated than a comma, far superior to a full stop. It’s a little resting place where you can pause, not lose your train of thought and then continue to the end of the sentence. I use it regularly in reports I write for work and I’d be lost without it.

  • Helen: I find it extremely useful too, so much so that I have to take care not to employ it excessively. “A little resting place” is a fine description; it can feel like that especially in long complex sentences.

  • It sometimes frustrates me when I find I’ve used 2 of them in the same sentence; I don’t *know* that this is wrong, but I feel it must be (unless I’m creating a list). That’s when I go back and find that the first one might actually be a colon, or I just have to rewrite the sentence, expressing the idea differently – which can be a good thing anyway.

  • Duncan: Looking at different ways to organise a sentence is a good habit, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with having multiple semicolons in one. It doesn’t have to be a list: the sentence might have different elements with internal commas, or significant pauses between them, which justify a series of semicolons. It’s not something to do lightly, though; breaking the sentence up is often a better option.

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