Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
writer editor born-again horse girl

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Praisesong for the Semicolon

October 05, 2009

My T-shirt collection probably numbers close to 175 by now, but I've stopped swearing that I'll neither buy nor accept new T-shirts. Instead, when someone gives me a T or I see one that I must have, I mumble, "I really don't need any more T-shirts." That's my way of telling the universe that yeah, I could wear a different T-shirt every warm-weather day for three, maybe four years and never have to do the laundry, but still there's always room for another good one.

The newest shirt on my back is pale yellow. It sports a large semicolon on the front and on the back it says: "The semicolon is not used enough; the comma is used too often." A sister editor put me on to these after I told her how two members of my writers' group waxed passionate one night about how much they hate semicolons. Along with the T-shirt I ordered two oval semicolon stickers, one for each of the semicolon haters. When they arrived, I knew immediately that Uhura Mazda needed one, so one of the anti-semicolonists has lost out. The other accepted hers with grace but has vowed to alter it in some way, perhaps by imposing a red international "NO" symbol on it.

Anti-semicolonism isn't rare among writers and even editors, but I don't understand it. A writer who favors simple, usually short subject-verb-object sentences will seldom have need of semicolons, but is that any reason to hate them? I suspect that at least sometimes anti-semicolonism is a cover for the fear and loathing of complex sentences: cop to hating complex sentences and someone in the room will take this to mean you dislike complex thoughts, but "I hate semicolons" sounds literarily discerning. To have a strong opinion about semicolons implies that one knows what a semicolon is, and that alone is enough to shut many people up.

As a writer and editor, I love having a well-stocked toolkit. Every sentence I encounter, the ones I wrote as well as the ones someone else did, has its own needs. Punctuation marks are tools for shaping sentences, and many sentences can be shaped in different ways. Here's an example, pulled from "My Terrorist Eye," a 2005 essay that I'm currently trying to abridge:

I'm an editor and writer; without functioning eyes, I can't work.

This not especially long or complex sentence could be punctuated in several other ways, all of them perfectly correct:

#1: I'm an editor and writer. Without functioning eyes, I can't work.

#2: I'm an editor and writer: without functioning eyes, I can't work.

#3: I'm an editor and writer -- without functioning eyes, I can't work.

#1 is the most matter-of-fact. To my ear it's the most staccato, and probably the most emphatic. It leaves the reader to connect the two statements in her own way.

In #2, the colon sets up a cause-and-effect relationship between the two parts of the sentence. The colon suggests because or therefore without adding a word.

The em dash in #3 also conveys cause-and-effect, but more expansively -- literally: em dashes take up more space than colons or semicolons and push the elements on either side of it further apart. Like the two-sentence option in #1, an em dash lets the reader make her own connections, but it gives her more room to do it in. To get a feel for em dashery, read a few Emily Dickinson poems the way she wrote them and then with "standard" punctuation imposed on them.

I read most everything I write aloud (and highly recommend the practice). When one reads aloud, the punctuation functions like musical notation: it signals pauses, breaks, and phrasing. I read each of my four options a little differently. In this particular sentence I used a semicolon because period + new sentence imposed too much separation between the two thoughts and because I wanted to downplay the cause-and-effect connection -- it's there, of course, but it's suggested rather than stated.

Plenty of readers will swear up and down that they read all four sentences exactly the same way and don't see an iota of difference among them. Some writers will swear likewise. Maybe they're right, but maybe -- at least some of the time -- the punctuation works subconsciously. When I'm reading for pleasure I often don't notice what punctuation marks the writer has used, or even what word she's chosen in preference to the various alternatives. When I'm editing, or reviewing, or just rereading to figure out How did she do that? -- then I notice. Craft is often self-effacing and invisible to the casual observer, but that doesn't mean it's unimportant.

So my toolkit is amply stocked with semicolons, and I keep them near the front where they won't get lost. If yours drift toward the back, or get buried under commas and dashes and colons, that's fine with me. But don't banish them altogether. A writer who eschews semicolons is like a carpenter who doesn't have a Phillips head screwdriver (several of them!) in her toolbox. Sure, you can often make do with the tools you've got, but you can achieve more precision and (dare I say it?) elegance if you've got exactly the right tool for the job.

P.S. If you want your very own semicolon T-shirt, sweatshirt, sticker, mug, or tote bag, visit the Dictyevangelist at CafePress.


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