I discovered semicolons in the fall of 1992. I had asked–on a lark of sorts–to read a term paper written by my then-girlfriend, who was taking a class in literary theory at New York University. In it, I noticed a ‘new’ form of punctuation; I had seen the semicolon before, but I had not seen it pressed so artfully into service. Here and there, my girlfriend had used it to mark off clauses–sometimes two, sometimes three–within a sentence; her placement turned one sentence into two, with a pause more pronounced than that induced by a comma. The two separated clauses acquired a dignity they did not previously progress; there was now a dramatic transition from one to the other as opposed to the blurring, the running on, induced by the comma. I had not read writing like this before; it read differently; it spoke to a level of sophistication in expression that seemed aspirational to me. I immediately resolved to use the semicolon in my own writing.
And so I did; I plunged enthusiastically into the business of sprinkling semicolons over my writing; they sprung up like spring wildflowers all over my prose, academic or not. Like my girlfriend, I did not stop at a mere pair of clauses; triplets and sometimes quadruplets were common. Indeed, the more the merrier; why not just string all of them along?
Needless to say, my early enthusiasm for semicolon deployment necessitated a pair of corrections. (My girlfriend herself offered one; my ego was not too enlarged to make me reject her help.) One was to use the semicolon properly. That is, to use it as a separator only when there were in fact separate clauses to be separated, and not just when a mere comma would have sufficed. The other, obviously, was to cut down just a tad on the number of clauses I was stringing together. Truth be told, there was something exhilarating about adding on one clause after another to a rapidly growing sentence, throwing in semicolon after semicolon, watching the whole dramatic edifice take shape on the page. Many editors of mine have offered interventions in this domain; I’ve almost always disagreed with their edits when they delete semicolons I’ve inserted in my writing. To my mind, they ran together too much and produced clunkier sentences in the process.
I don’t think there is any contest; the semicolon is my favorite piece of punctuation. The period is depressing; it possesses too much finality. The comma is a poser; it clutters up sentences, and very few people ever become comfortable with, or competent in, using them. (I often need to read aloud passages of prose I’ve written in order to get my comma placement right.) The colon is a little too officious. (My ascription of personalities to punctuation marks comes naturally to a synesthete like me.) The semicolon combines the best of all three, typographically and syntactically. It looks good; it works even better. What’s not to like?
5 thoughts on “An Ode To The Semicolon”
I dunno, Samir–I prefer the double dash.
George: you have a point. I love the double dash myself! My wife complains that I overuse it.
And please keep your ear out for the philosophically keen and melodically invigorating band: The Spamdammits; Comida Burana and other immediate clauses.
Summer. 2018. 🙂😀🙃
Will do! Thanks!
Don’t be too self-conscious with it. It’s a device that allows you to have more internal complexity in your sentence structure. A sentence in general is a structure whose meaning has the logical form of internal differentiation with unification, which is the structure of all generative categories, such as the meanings of lexemes. Any sentence is an instance of a combinatorial schema that has this internal structure; but the principles of differentiation of the combinatorial schema are different from those of the lexical category, since the former have to do with the grasp or understanding of any objective situation, such as an event or a process or one’s own actions, and these all have complex internal structures. The differentiations of the combinatorial schemata allow us to interpret this infinitely differentiable manifold of objective experience. A semicolon indicates a coherence between the parts of the sentence connected and the whole; but this implies a principle of unification that we should try to become aware of as we use them. You can use them for no good reason, of course, but it’s more fun to find the good reason.