Friday, 28 November 2008


The semicolon is a much-maligned creature. It is hated. It is misused. There have been people who call it pretentious. More often, there have been people who use other punctuations where the semicolon ought to be used. I think the semicolon must feel in these circumstances like Betty when she realizes Archie has taken Veronica out when they had agreed that it was Betty's turn. This all likely derives from the poor education we receive. I do not recall ever being taught how to use a semicolon, or not in such a way that the teaching stuck. Instead, I taught myself out of a grammar book when I got to university. This is also how I learned how to correct comma splices and what the difference between 'affect' and 'effect' is. Our education system is a monstrosity, focusing on literature without equipping us with the mechanical expertise required. If this seems like your education, then I beseech you to take it into your own hands!

I will suggest reading A Canadian Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker. I use the third edition. This is the official rule book for the English Department at Queen's University, and I think that that's enough authority to do for the country. Of course, if you're not Canadian, these rules may not fix accurately on to your dialect, but since Canada is about as middle-of-the-road as you can get, straddling the old guard of England English and the neutered, plastic American English, this guide should do for just about anyone in the English-speaking world, at least as a compromise.

But to the semicolon...

I have said that the semicolon is disliked because it is misunderstood. This is partly true. However, there are those who understand the functions of a semicolon perfectly well and still dislike them. Consider the following:

I am not a fan of the semicolon. I think of it as the hermaphrodite of punctuation. It’s both a period and a comma, with the neither the personality nor the passion of either. It even looks like a hermaphrodite, with both organs, as it were. And when it is used, it generally has a tentativeness to it that seems to me to indicate it doesn’t know which part of itself to emphasize. So often a period, or a comma, would be better to use than a semicolon. I think one of its only consistently legitimate uses is in a series of lists in which commas and conjunctions are seriously involved. There, they can save the reader from confusion. Otherwise, I leave it in storage.

This can be found on pages 93 and 94 of Goodman's book The Soul of Creative Writing. Evidentally this is not praise. However, he does say elsewhere in the book, "I have my favourite punctuations and my not so favourites. But it’s more a matter, I think, of trying to understand how these marks are employed and determining how they can be used in creative ways" (90). So I think we can chalk this up to personal opinion, though I will look at his language a little more closely.

Vonnegut has also expressed dislike for semicolons. He has reportedly said, "But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college." From what little I know of Vonnegut, I'd suggest that his opinions are about as scattered as buckshot; in my opinion, that's a good thing, because it suggests that he's non-partisan and actually thinks. However, it also means I'll disagree with about half of what he says, and this is one of those cases. Among other things, he seems uncharacteristically opposed to ambiguity here.

What strikes me most about these comments on the semi-colon is their connection between the semicolon and hybridity. Specifically, both reference hermaphrodites. Here is what I think on the matter:

You have a problem with semi-colons? Semi-colons rock. They're both commas and colons. They're like mermaids or gryphons or Obama: they defy categorical bounds! They're like the border between Ontario and Quebec, stitching together two seperate but inseperable parts. They're just generally excellent, and the only reason people don't like them is that people are afraid of ambiguity. People are afraid of hermaphrodites, cyborgs, conjoined twins, and semi-colons, all for the same reason.

I've hyperlinked to previous posts that give some theoretical framework for harmaphrodites and conjoined twins.

The reason that people are afraid of them is, as is surely implied, their perceived ambiguity. Of course, the semicolon isn't ambiguous at all, in that it has a clear and precise role. However, there are thinkers who have noticed a sort of hybridity, and so I'd like to look at that. Semicolons, by design, hold together two equal parts. They hold together parts that are generally considered independent, but that the writer believes need to be conjoined because of some relationship. A semicolon is thus like a wedding vow, or wedding rings, or, if you care to be particularly naughty, like a wedding consummation. They fuse two into one. It is in fact very like the wish of the nymph Salmacis, that Hermaphroditus be joined with her forever (this is a reference to Ovid's Metamorphosis, by the way). I've discussed this in the hermaphrodites section. The semicolon is also like the band of tissue that held together Cheng and Eng, the brothers after whom the moniker "Siamese twins" is derived. It is the midriff of the amphisbaena. Its ambiguity lies thus in the created relationships, in the equality of independents, and not in its function. After all, it has a very specific function.

According the Hacker, the semicolon's most basic goal is "to separate major sentence elements of equal grammatical rank" (250). Subfunctions include the following: "Use a semicolon between closely related independent clauses not joined with a coordinating conjunction" (251), "Use a semicolon between independent clauses linked with a transitional expression" (251), and "Use a semicolon between items in a series containing internal punctuation" (252). Respectively, she gives these examples: "Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice. --H. L. Mencken" (251), "Most singers gain fame through hard work and dedication; Evita, however, found other means" (252), and "Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock and his large pointed ears; Battlestar Galactica, with its Cylon Raiders; and Star Wars, with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader" (252). In her explanations, Hacker provides all you need to know about how to use a semicolon.

There are common misuses as well, where the semicolon dates Archie when it's actually the comma's turn, though it's usually the other way around. Hacker says that these include using it to connect a subordinate clause with the rest of the sentence, to connect an appositive to the word to which it refers, and with the seven conjunctions used to connect independent clauses (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). A semicolon also ought not be used to introduce a list, which is technically a colon's job. However, creative prose writers have found exceptions, where a semicolon improves either clarity or effect on the reader. These should be embraced and used with caution. This is because the semicolon has a longer pause then a comma and emphasizes the equal weight of the parts. A comma makes one part subjugated to the other. Function is paramount.

Evidentally, semicolons have particular, unambiguous uses, unless you want to be creative. What instills the most fear, then, is miseducation, pretention, and the strange relationships semicolons produce. The first should scare us very much, but we can try and overcome that. The other two oughtn't scare us at all. If a semicolon makes you sound pretention, then it is very likely the case that you are pretentious in the first place, because otherwise you wouldn't be using the semicolon in a showy sort of way. And strange relationships are perfectly acceptable--in fact, laudable--in writing. We must examine strange relationships somewhere, and better in art than in your own life. Thus, there is nothing to fear in the lofty semicolon. She is beautiful; she is pratical; she is exotic; she is supple. I implore you, place her where she can do her best work.

I'll leave you with this quotation, which will give you an inkling as to how you can use a semicolon to best affect your reader:

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. . . . It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.
__ Lewis Thomas


Jon Wong said...

I've been waiting for you to make a post like this for awhile. It's a good look into the semicolon.

Atheist said...

Great post, I have been trying to understand it's (her ;P) use; and it's great to view your stand too

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