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Punte e Virgola: The Magic of the Semicolon

This blog tries to reclaim the lost magic and tarnished reputation of the semicolon; our most valuable and flexible punctuational friend, and one this writer has kept in close touch with over the years; even at times when it has been blackballed from polite literary society or – at best – tolerated with hardly concealed suspicion.

Lionel Shriver a few years ago described the semicolon as “beleaguered” and “being eaten alive by the rapacious em-dash”. Why should this be? For my part I can’t understand why the semicolon is not the most popular member of the punctuation fraternity.

Quite literally the semicolon “makes sense”. It brings sense to any sentence where it is used; a subtle half-break to highlight the natural breath-point of the sentence and restore natural rhythm and cadence.

We acknowledge in this blog that the semicolon can be overused, almost a fetish for some writers. That word fetish is a bit theatrical, but I see the point. Here we argue that maybe the pendulum has swung too far the other way and – while avoiding compulsive overuse and sordid linguistic gratification – let’s leave some space in our hearts and minds for this special instrument.

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What’s Not To Like?

A semicolon’s a fabulous thing
Of all punctuation the king
But though usage has wavered
And he’s no longer favoured
His praise we continue to sing

The doyen of style guides, Hart’s Rules, is matter of fact: a semicolon “marks a separation that is stronger than a comma but less strong than a full point” {full stop, that is, to you and me}. Fair enough; nice and factual; true even. But wait, there’s more. “In a sentence that is already sub-divided by commas, a semicolon can be used instead of a comma to indicate a stronger division.” A bit like this sentence, I imagine you mean, whose first half is laden with commas already; given I didn’t want to force full separation via a full point.

Hart goes on: “in a list where any of the elements themselves contain commas, use a semicolon to clarify the relationship of the components”. Well, hang that. I use it in lists full stop; regardless of whether or not there’s a wretched comma in the middle justifying its existence.

I do this for the same reasons given above: the semicolon restores the natural cadence of the list by forcing you into a nice welcome half-break; keeps the sentence from getting unfeasibly long; and subtly but firmly breaks the visual flow to demonstrate that this indeed a list and not just a very long sentence.

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Show More Hart

Hart’s final example is due to the fact that it can be “confusing and unattractive to begin a sentence with a symbol especially one that is not a capital letter…”; in this situation “the semicolon can replace a full point”. Hart highlights the example where you denote two variables as a and b and then go on to explain what they mean: a means one thing and b means another. In this usage you might have needed to start the explanation with the lower case symbol a after a full point; which would have looked ugly and incongruous; but you were saved the incongruity by my good friend the semicolon.

Hmmm. Yes. True, all true; but rather a paltry acknowledgement of its true power and flexibility.

In the article I quoted earlier, Lionel Shriver pointed out that it is possible to overdo it; to overuse the magic mark to the point where it becomes just as annoying as any other punctuational tic. She said a former student of hers had suffered a kind of semicolonic fetish; unwilling or unable to use a full point or even a comma to break up any paragraph or sentence; ever; to absurd and laughable effect.

I would like to point out I was not that student; she was a she; nor would I go to such extremes; it would be ridiculous and self-absorbed.

I admit, though, to routinely using semicolons on Twitter; which you may regard as a waste of precious characters and evidence of fetishism or obsession; to which I say: think what you like.

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Views from the Comma Queen

Let’s look elsewhere for a moment. Even Mary Norris – the rightly famed and self-titled New Yorker Comma Queen – is scathing in defence of the wretched em-dash at the expense of our guy.

Think of all the uses of the dash:—It can be used within dialogue in place of a semicolon, and it is actually more realistic—most people don’t think in semicolons.

Er – don’t they? Are you sure? I do. Is it just me? Surely our adored Comma Queen can’t be dismissing it so blithely? But wait; there’s more:

There is no mark of punctuation so upper-crust as the semicolon. A writer friend who was born in England summed up her feelings for the semicolon in a remark worthy of Henry James: ‘There is no pleasure so acute as that of a well-placed semicolon.’ I guess the opposite of that is that there is no displeasure so obtuse as that of an ill-placed semicolon.

Ouch. But Mary does at least go on to semi-defend the magic mark, drawing attention to the Italian term punte e virgola (“point and comma”) – which to me kind of hits the spot – both point and comma simultaneously. Mary also acknowledges – I am sure this is true and am, in fact, quite proud of it – that in her observation the semicolon is used best by the British. Quite so. The nuances and stylistic subtleties which inform its use are so much harder to achieve for most American English writers. Mary herself being an exception, of course: I would not be that disrespectful. Not to mention Henry James and Walt Whitman, both notorious users/abusers of the magic mark. Walt abuses it as a glorified comma where he needs more weight than a comma; Henry abuses it by adding unnecessary conjunctions, whereas used properly it should have the weight of a conjunction in itself; this presumably being allowable usage; but this not being.

You may have noticed I did not use many semicolons in that last paragraph (OK, well, a few, just for effect) and only one in the preceding one. I am trying. Let me finish with Mary by repeating her story of a Canadian friend educated in Nova Scotia who is “very fond of the semicolon and uses it instead of a comma in the greeting of a letter, thus: Dear Mary;…”.

Wow. And apparently this is what she (the friend) was taught and is not her own innovation. She (the friend – a violist) thinks of the semicolon as a comma with vibrato. Now you’re talking!

I will not delve any more into Mary’s treatment; you get the gist. Actually it demonstrates the point quite well that even among aficionados and experts there is by no means consensus, and feelings run high. Get a life, you might say, and you would be right.

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Alternatives: Full Point, Colon, Comma

A good way of looking at the semicolon is to look at the viable alternatives; which typically tend to be the full point, the colon or the comma. A good rule of thumb to avoid overuse is to consider whether any of the above fits the sense better than the semicolon; if it does, use it instead.

Conversely, if no punctuation is a sound alternative, then using a semicolon might be deemed vain, unnecessary and a distraction.

The following illustrations demonstrate the slippery slope we are on here: none of what follows is definitive, it’s a matter of style, taste and usage and is evolving quickly over time.

Full Point

Let’s start with the full point (full stop). Actually here, in my view, the full stop and the semicolon are virtually substitutable. I mentioned this in an earlier blog but these days the rules on what is or is not a sentence have become more relaxed. It is just a matter of how short or long you want your sentences to be. You might like them short. Sometimes without verbs. Like this. Or starting with a relative pronoun. Which is fine, in my view. But if you wanted to substitute a semicolon for any or all of the above you would have been within your rights. Almost. Actually the sense dictates that you probably shouldn’t use one between “verbs” and “like” because those sentences were structured to make a grammatical point. But you could easily have used one between “short” and “sometimes”; most of the time I probably would have.

Colon

Let’s move on to the colon. In a sense the use of the word “semi” in semicolon is a bit misleading; it implies “half”, “less”, “weaker than” the colon whereas in a sense the semicolon is a stronger pause than the colon. Certainly there should be connectivity between what precedes a colon and what comes after it: hence its use in lists, and where the succeeding phrase or clause is a subordinate relative of the preceding one. The semicolon, on the other hand, should be used where there isn’t much of a direct relationship between the two parts; an explanatory relationship perhaps; where a full point would be just as valid, irrespective of how many verbs are involved.

A good illustration of the colon/semicolon difference can be seen in the Oxbridge Editing Blog’s Funny Grammar Guide:

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This rather unfortunate church sign is an ideal way to illustrate the difference between the colon and the semicolon. Its meaning is ambiguous because of its lack of punctuation. If a colon was used to separate the two clauses, it would suggest that the church should be allowed to help with the killing, because of the implied explanation or extension of the first sentence by the second! If a semicolon was used however, the two sentences would be considered separate, giving the intended positive message! This is a great example of the power these little punctuation marks have to completely change the meaning of your sentences…use them wisely!

Yes indeed.

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Comma

Finally, the comma. This distinction is perhaps the most awkward, relying on usage and interpretation which are not clear-cut. One example we have already covered is usage in lists. Grammatical convention states that where a list contains elements that are themselves separated by a comma, use a semicolon to divide the list: “recommended cities to visit in the United States include Seattle, Washington; Columbia, SC; Flagstaff, Arizona and Boston, Massachusetts.” Where not, don’t. As mentioned earlier I don’t disagree with the first part of this rule, but I do disagree with the second part (“where not, don’t”). If natural rhythm and cadence dictate that half-breaths are appropriate within the list – whether or not there is already a comma somewhere in the middle – use a semicolon regardless and hang the consequences.

Also not very clear-cut is the so-called comma splice. I quote here from Curtis Newbold’s informative and exciting website thevisualcommunicationguy.com

The number-one, most problematic punctuation problem I see is when two independent clauses (complete sentences) are connected with a comma. Yuck. Connecting two sentences with a comma is called a comma splice (a form of run-on sentence) and it makes reading clunky and hard to follow. If you have a subject and verb on one side of the sentence and a subject and verb on the other side, there needs to either be a semicolon or a period to separate the two. Examples: (INCORRECT) The sun is bright today, we need to put on some sunscreen. (CORRECT) The sun is bright today; we need to put on some sunscreen.

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Valued Links

I will finish with a bit of curation. Right at the top of Google and justifiably so is a lovely piece from American comic blogger The Oatmeal who sums it up more neatly, visually and cleverly than I ever could.

Though I might contend Matthew’s headline: most feared punctuation on earth? Hmm, I can think of a few things on the page more fearful to me. Like anything to do with speech punctuation, in or out?, comma or no?, double or single quote marks?, which within which?

Next, some easy rules from an authoritative but sadly deceased writer, the late Jane Straus, in her renowned bestselling and entertaining Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, which continues to be quoted widely as an authoritative grammatical lexicon five years after Jane’s death from cancer.

And finally, a really good summary from Beth Hill at The Editor’s Blog:

Semicolons have specific uses. Using them—and using them correctly—can add choices to your writing options.
The semicolon stands out and draws attention. Use it sparingly.
Use the semicolon to join short, choppy sentences into a smoother flow.
Use the semicolon to add variety to your sentence styles.
Put the semicolon to work for you.

For my part Prism-Clarity will continue to use – some would say overuse – the magic mark and aim to remove the fear and stigma from this most powerful and valuable instrument; risking abuse and vitriol along the way from respected experts; but we hope some way short of fetishism.

Contact Prism-Clarity for further help or information, including advice on where to get the best advice.