Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I Love Semicolons.

Currently the most e-mailed NY Times article is on semicolons. Ha!

I swear I didn't know how to use a semicolon until graduate school, when I suddenly had to teach undergraduates how to use them. I blame the 70's! I went to schools where we didn't study English; we studied "Language Arts" and wrote in journals and watched the movies of all the books we read. I didn't learn a scrap of grammar until I took a foreign language, and punctuation just fell by the wayside. I knew I was ignorant, but I thought I'd get by all right with what I picked up via osmosis. Somehow I didn't absorb the rules for semicolons. I know I'm not the only one.

Once I did learn the rules, I was mad for them! I loved writing sentences of different lengths and with different rhythms; semicolons were a new instrument I could mix it up with. I think of colons as being a right pointing arrow, a kind of LOOKY HERE symbol (before I got comfortable with colons, I used to sprinkle my school notes and journal writing with actual arrows, which served the same purpose. I think I got it from math class). But semicolons are like tape lashing together two separate thoughts: a bit sloppy but indicative of an important if subtle relationship.

But then I read what Vonnegut had to say about them: "First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites* representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college."

And it's true no one ever needs to use a semicolon; a period and a capital will do every time. Semicolons would detract from Vonnegut's voice, which gets so much of its power from its simplicity. But sometimes you don't want to write two separate sentences.

Anyway, that and other similar quotations got me self-conscious about using them. I was pretty spare about using them in my published novel, though a few sneaked in. I was freer with the colons, though. There's nothing frou-frou about a colon! And there's a dash on almost every page. Christ! Almost as bad as exclamation points!

* This blog has nothing but support for transvestites and hermaphrodites!

26 comments:

Monketah said...

Melville did it for me. Every time I came across a semicolon while reading Moby-Dick--and there are thousands of them--I would imagine a sailor's knot, like in a ship's rigging.

rmellis said...

That is cool.

AC said...

I saw semicolons everywhere in the Victorian novels I read as a kid, but none in the more modern books. I got the impression that they were outmoded, like manual typewriters and carbon paper. I used dashes all through college. Now I think the dashes look dated and pretentious, but the semicolons are dignified and classic. But it's easy to get carried away with them and start sounding like a 19th century judge.

jrlennon said...

I've curbed my semicolon use over the years--it seems so pedantic to me these days. I'm still big on the colon, though (there was a time when I loved colons so much that I had to make myself write an ENTIRE BOOK without them, just to make sure I wasn't a junkie).

Lately I find that, when I would use a semicolon, I either use a period...or a comma. The notion of the artful comma splice has really taken hold in my mind, as a kind of effect, like strong film grain or the use of Casio keyboards in heavily produced rock songs. I even have a technical argument for its acceptability: commas can separate items in a list, and the comma splice represents the separation of a list of independent clauses.

OutOfContext said...

I recently went into business with my brother-in-law and part of my end is polishing the communication prose. He brought me a letter and as we were going through it he asked if there should be a comma or a period at one point. I said "semi-colon" and explained it's use. He said, in a kind of hushed enthusiasm, "I love the semi-colon." I semi-colonize one person at a time.

jrlennon said...

Oh and as for em-dashes, I've come around to Rhian's way of thinking, that they're best used to separate an aside that is too immediate to use parentheses for. Generally, if you use a dash, you should use another, to "close" the aside.

jrlennon said...

"Semi-colonize" ha ha!! I like that.

baker said...

Nice to hear you support transvestites and hermaphrodites. You might also want to consider supporting those of different religions, too.

rmellis said...

Different religions?

Different from what?

jrlennon said...

"Christ! Almost as bad as exclamation points!" could be altered so that it blasphemes all manner of deities.

5 Red Pandas said...

On the first day of the transit strike from a few years ago I had a kid come in on his razor scooter, but after that first day attendance plummeted. I figured that the few kids I had were pretty nerdy if they'd bothered to show up so I decided to teach a little grammar. Of course I've never been taught grammar so when I picked up the book to start teaching some of it's finer points I said, "Ok, we're going to figure this stuff out together." I knew how to use much of it properly, I just didn't know why it was so. There has to be a better way to teach grammar, probably within text, while it's being read.

I have this fantasy reaction when I am stumped by a grammar use that is not incorrect but more a matter of taste, and style. I think, "Let's let an editor worry about that!" Of course I snap out of it and try to make a good choice on my own.

rmellis said...

Phooey, you're right; I'm not much of an equal-opportunity blasphemer.

Pandas: over the years JRL has made up his own usage rules and takes umbrage when the copyeditor seems unfamiliar with them.

Transit strike = improved grammar. I love that.

jrlennon said...

Well...it's not that the copyeditors don't know my rules...it's that they're trained not to think of grammar and punctuation as arenas of expressive potential. Thus the conflicts.

I will never forget the war I had with the Mad Commaist, though. I think I wrote STET about three thousand times.

grumpy said...

I agree that semicolons may be transvestite hermaphrodites.

Ah, but the elipsis! The menage a trois of punction . . .

Anonymous said...

I never used to use a semicolon. Mostly because I had absolutely no idea how to use them. Then I taught a boy who was demented about them. Everything he handed in had dozens of the things. I kept ignoring them in the hope that they were accurate or that nobody else would notice. Then I started to write a novel and they began appearing in my sentences. I think they are infectious.

Someone read my manuscript last week and she told me that I was not to use semicolons as they were pretentious and passe. Now I'm worried there are all sorts of grammar fashions that I am completely ignorant of.
I mean, I know that exclamation marks can be bad news but other than that, I'm stumped.
Also, I think I used semicolons frequently because the spell and grammar checker isn't fond of my comma usage and kept suggesting forcefully that I consider Mr Semicolon.
By the way, did I mention that I used to be a sub editor and that I teach English?

AC said...

I was never taught any hard and fast grammar rules. When I got a job as a copyeditor, I had several months of panic. Then the publisher I work for decided that the modern economy doesn't really leave us time to proofread our "products". Hallelujah! Don't like that comma? It's not my fault, talk to some guy in China. Of course, the rabid grammar junkies I work with are pining for the good old days...

AC said...

I was never taught any hard and fast grammar rules. When I got a job as a copyeditor, I had several months of panic. Then the publisher I work for decided that the modern economy doesn't really leave us time to proofread our "products". Hallelujah! Don't like that comma? It's not my fault, talk to some guy in China.

miette said...

You know, I have a thing for semicolons when they're used sharply. The problem is they're used like gum-snapping soccermomming subdivision dwellers use conjunctions: to keep a sentence from ending, because as long as a sentence goes on and on, -you- have no way into the conversation. In semicolocontext it's the same... you can't stop to think about the sentence I wrote if I'm never going to end it. It's the perfect cheat for a habitual blatherer.

But on the other hand, when you use them to conjoin two thoughts in such a way that they become more than themselves, it's a big turnon. I almost can't even think about it without going all flush. Is that a kink?

5 Red Pandas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
5 Red Pandas said...

Rhian, check out the first page of the excerpt of the preview on Amazon for Shirley Jackson's Come Along With Me. It's chock full of semi colons and dashes galore!

http://tinyurl.com/2dcn9w

I'm intrigued enough to check the book out.

Matt said...

I'm reminded of one of the very few likable parts of Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam": an interview with Jimmy Breslin, talking about when he received a letter from the "Son of Sam" killer (David Berkowitz). Breslin proclaims that Berkowitz was one of the few writers who knew how to use a semi-colon.

jrlennon said...

anonymous, never use grammar check. Promise me! You must disable it completely.

You may use whatever punctuation you like.

Mr. Saflo said...

22 comments for an entry about semicolons. You freaking kids, I swear to God.

myles said...

I think it might have been J.B.S Haldane, the great scientist, who said, after surgery for bowel cancer: "Much better a semi-colon than a full stop."

Incidentally, he was also one of the few to write about cancer in humorous rhyming couplets. "I wish I had the voice of Homer/ To sing of rectal carcinoma."

GFS3 said...

I freakin' love semi-colons.

aimomo said...

Most people that don't like semicolons don't know how to use them. Papers shouldn't be littered with them unless there's a specific reason, a purpose for them; however, they have their own grace. All punctuation marks have their own rhythm, their own beat, their own sounds--it would be disgraceful to forget about one. Sometimes you don't want that full stop, sometimes you want it to flow more smoothly, and that's where semicolons can help.