Clover’s Literary Corner: The Endangered Semicolon

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In his essay collection A Man Without a Country, published two years before his death in 2007, Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons…. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” This typically radical and tongue-in-cheek pronouncement is often used to justify disdain for this form of punctuation, which some see as archaic and which seems to be rapidly disappearing from our discourse—mainly because fewer and fewer writers know how to use it properly.

But Vonnegut’s words have been taken out of context. He went on to say “And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding.” In fact, later in the same essay he himself uses a semicolon, commenting, “And there, I’ve just used a semicolon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: rules only take us so far, even good rules.”

Much as I admire Kurt Vonnegut—black humor author of classics such as Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973), and my favorite short story of all time, “Harrison Bergeron” (1961)—I have to disagree with him on this one. The semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark, without which I could not write a coherent paragraph!

First, let’s remind ourselves that the vital role of punctuation in written language is to define relationships between sentence elements, or thought elements. The weakest of these—the comma— indicates a gentle pause for breath, or a kind of embrace setting off a closely related fragment of thought. “Paperwhites, the most delicate of flowers, smell heavenly.” The brawny period, on the other hand, ends a sentence at the conclusion of a thought, establishing finality and providing a gateway to the introduction of a new idea.

The elegant semicolon falls exactly halfway between these two. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the semicolon as “a punctuation-mark consisting of a dot placed above a comma.” Literally, it is half a colon (:), the punctuation mark that means “namely” or “that is”—but this doesn’t get at its actual meaning. Like Janus (the namesake of our current month), it looks both backward and forward at the same time, linking two sentence elements and lending an artful balance to the prose, like a seesaw with children of equal weights hanging level. Another word for sentence elements is clauses, which can be either dependent or independent. Dependent clauses, such as “new year’s day” or “slick streets,” cannot stand alone, while independent clauses, such as “the new year has begun” or “it is snowing” can. An independent clause expresses a complete thought and must contain both a subject and a verb; a dependent clause expresses an incomplete thought, or thought fragment. Two related independent closes may only be joined into the same sentence by using a conjunction (such as and, but, so, or yet), or by using a semicolon—which is less wordy and adds strength to the sentence. The semicolon allows a writer to join two complete thoughts into one sentence, showing their close relationship and uniting them into one larger thought without confusion. To join two independent clauses with only a comma (commonly known as a comma splice) is confusing, misleading, and sloppy.

Let’s look at some examples. “The holidays are over, it’s time to get back to work” consists of two independent clauses, each of which contains a subject and a verb. These are two complete ideas that, though related, demand definition stronger than a comma. The reader is confused, because the comma implies that we are still within the same thought, not that we are starting a whole new one. This is the ideal situation to use a semicolon, because the two ideas follow on one another. “The holidays are over; it’s time to get back to work” communicates accurately that we have two, independent, complete thoughts, but they are so closely related that they become more meaningful when combined into one sentence. For another example, “it is snowing, the streets are growing slick” makes little sense as written. The relationship between the words, and between the sentence parts, has been thrown into doubt. Does “it” refer to “streets” or “slick”? How are the streets related to the snow? Oops! The writer forgot to indicate with proper punctuation that these are two separate but equal, complete ideas, the second resulting from the first: “it is snowing; the streets are growing slick.”

Substituting a comma where a semicolon should be is an easy mistake to make. The test is whether the second part of the sentence can stand alone as a complete sentence; if so, replace the comma with a semicolon. “I’m tired, I think I’ll go to bed” or “ars longa, vita brevis” both cry out for semicolons to set them straight. The latter is an ancient aphorism (Latin, from the original Greek) that has simply been passed down inaccurately, and should be translated “art is long; life is short.”  The error of a comma splice can also be ameliorated with the addition of a conjunction: “It is snowing, and the streets are growing slick” or “art is long, but life is short” are correct, but less powerful expressions than the semicolon solution.

A semicolon is also required before transitional adverbs such as however, nevertheless, therefore, and for example. “It is snowing; however, my all-wheel drive should keep me safe” or “life is short; therefore, enjoy each moment.”

One additional, though relatively rare, use of the semicolon is to set apart complex elements in a series, especially if they involve commas themselves. “On our trip across the country we visited Mesa Verde, in Colorado; Yellowstone, in Wyoming; and Yosemite, in California.” This use simply signals to the reader whether we are within or between elements in the series.

If you still doubt the merit or usefulness of the semicolon, just look to the great authors of poetry and fiction from before, say, 1950 (William Faulkner rarely used a comma, let alone a semicolon). John Keats, Jane Austen, and Henry James were major fans. The structure of our language hasn’t changed; only our understanding of it has. Going back to Vonnegut, the breaking of these rules can occasionally be forgiven in classic lines like Charles Dickens’ famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” But like Vonnegut, Dickens usually does use them to help us navigate his long sentences, to make his meaning clear, and to craft powerful expressions—even ending the same novel with Sidney Carton’s inspiring “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

The rules defining when to use the semicolon are good rules.

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