An Ode To The Semicolon

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?

A Synesthesia Of Sorts

For a long time now, perhaps as long as I can remember, letters and numbers have had colors and personalities and aesthetic grades. Here are the ways in which they do, for me:

  1. I see colors in vowels. The letter ‘a’ is yellow; ‘e’ is red; ‘i’ is white; ‘o’ is black; ‘u’ is grey. Because of these colors associated with vowels, when I see a printed word, I see a word that is colored somehow. That word ‘somehow’ is red and black for instance; it has acquired a particular color for me. My name has shades too; my first name is ‘lighter’ because of the presence of the ‘a’ and ‘i’ in it; my last name is made darker by the presence of an ‘o.’ Words in which there are very few vowels in proportion to their length look a little colorless to me as a result. ‘Sky,’ for instance, is entirely colorless. Blocks of text in which a particular vowel predominates acquire a shading based on the color of that particular vowel.
  2. I see ‘personalities’ in numbers (not all). ‘2’ is timid and obsequious; ‘3’ is a little smug and self-satisfied as does ‘6’; ‘4’ looks ‘closed off,’ not ‘open’ to conversation; ‘5’ looks a little like a plump person. 1, 9, 8, and 7 do not produce such connotations. Neither does zero.
  3. I see some numbers as pretty and some as ugly. ’74’ is a beautiful number; ’57’ is ugly as is ’77’. These examples show that it is not the number ‘7’ that makes the difference here but the particular combination with other numbers. Moreover, my perception of beauty in these numbers has nothing to do with their arithmetical or number theoretic properties. This perception of numbers as beautiful continues for a while but fizzles out somewhere below 1000; after that the ‘appearance’ of the numbers is of little interest or importance to me, though some older perceptions persist and affect my take on even larger numbers. For instance, because I find ’77’ ugly, I find any number ending in those two digits ugly. So acute is the perception of some numbers beauty or ugliness, that I can barely stand to see them; I find ‘111’ ugly and don’t even like seeing it in print. Some other beautiful numbers below 100 are: 54, 86, 84, 76–these are all even numbers; some odd numbers I find ‘beautiful’ are: 71, 63. I have noticed that I find more even numbers beautiful than I do the odd ones, suggesting to me that odd numbers seem ‘incomplete’ or not ’rounded off’ to me. My daughter’s birthday falls on the 23rd of a month; I remember being vaguely disappointed at that birth date; a 24 or a 26 would have ‘looked much better’; ‘even’ a 25 would have better.
  4. Lastly, I see the numbers ranging from 0-100 in a kind of spatial grid and not arranged along a number line. The grid looks like a stack of ten rows and ten columns; the first row runs from 0 to 10, the second row from 11-20, and so on till the tenth row which runs from 91-100. If I’m watching a game of any kind in which the score–whether team or individual–advances from 0 onwards to 100, and possibly beyond, I see it advancing along this grid. I suspect that my lifelong history as fan of a sport obsessed with statistics–cricket–has had something to do with the enhancement of this vision.

Wikipedia defines synesthesia as:

Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia; from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, “together”, and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, “sensation“) is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[1][2][3][4] People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme-color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.[5][6] In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).[7][8]Synesthetic associations can occur in any combination and any number of senses or cognitive pathways.[9]

Based on these definitions, I am inclined to think I’m a synesthete of a sort. I welcome comments from folks who report similar perceptual experiences.