July 23, 2014

Maybe it’s the oppressive Florida heat and humidity, but I find myself in a mischievously contrarian mood these days. First I flew the flag of the Oxford comma. Then I raised the roof on behalf of the passive voice. So why not try for a trifecta: a proposal that we restore the undervalued semicolon to its proper place in journalism – ahead of the dash.

It could be that I’ve been shaped by the influence of one of my favorite writers, more importantly, the richest writer in the world: J.K. Rowling. If a woman now worth more than the Queen of England peppers her prose with semicolons, why should we deny their power and influence.

Writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling has given us The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective mystery with her flawed and injured hero Cormoran Strike. Check out this passage:

An overdose had simply seemed consistent with the trend of Leda’s life; with the squats and the musicians and the wild parties; with the squalor of her final relationship and home; with the constant presence of drugs in her vicinity; with her reckless quest for thrills and highs. Strike alone had asked whether anyone had known his mother had taken to shooting up; he alone had seen a distinction between her predilection for cannabis and a sudden liking for heroin; he alone had unanswered questions and saw suspicious circumstances. But he had been a student of twenty, and nobody had listened.

For the record, that’s six semicolons in a paragraph of 101 words, about one every 17 words. Let it be known, that no language was injured in the making of this paragraph.

If you’d like to brush up on your semicolon skills, please follow this argument, which I have adapted here from a chapter of the book The Glamour of Grammar:

Come to think of it, the semicolon does look a little like a colon with a polyp. In truth, it is probably used more often these days in winking emoticons 😉 than as an alternative to the period or the comma. Maybe because a period sits atop a comma in the semicolon, it sends off a “neither here nor there” aura, threatening me with its indifference.

Whenever I’m having unsettled thoughts about punctuation, I turn to the work of Tom Wolfe. It was in the 1960s, after all, when Wolfe and his buddies began to bust the boundaries of conventional nonfiction. Among those innovations was a tendency to use punctuation like hot spice in a Cajun stew. A little this!…A little that*!*!…Bada boom!!!

So on a whim, I pulled out a copy of Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full, and thumbed through it until my eye caught this passage on page 262:

Outside, Conrad threw the newspaper away in a receptacle on this corner. He now had two twenty-dollar bills, a five, a one, two quarters, a dime, and a nickel. He started walking again. Over there – a telephone. He deposited a quarter. Nothing; dead; it was out of order; he couldn’t get the quarter back; he jiggled the lever; he pounded the machine with the heel of his hand. A panic rose up in him, and now his extremities seemed to shrink and grow cold. He walked all the way back to the first telephone he had found. His heart was beating much too fast. Gingerly he deposited his last quarter – and placed another collect call to Jill – and told her the whole sad story.

I admire this paragraph for many reasons, but especially for the ambitious varieties of punctuation, including ten periods, seven commas, five semicolons, and three dashes. I am especially intrigued by the unusual use of the semicolon in that central sentence:

Nothing; dead; it was out of order; he couldn’t get the quarter back; he jiggled the lever; he pounded the machine with the heel of his hand.

I admit that I would have been tempted to replace each semicolon with a period. In its current form, the sentence seems unparallel and out of joint. But then, isn’t that the point of the sentence? In a panic, a man without a cell phone needs coins and a working pay phone to make an important human connection. By means of those semicolons, Wolfe describes a frantic series of actions that proceed in chronological order and together form a single sentence, a complete thought.

Abandoning Wolfe (and fiction), I went from author to author looking for semicolons and was surprised to see the radically different preferences of writers, scholars, and critics. A collection of essays by 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt revealed very few among hundreds of pages, while cultural critic Greil Marcus relies on them again and again, especially when he is trying to connect/divide two short important points: “Innocence is the colorless stain on the national tapestry,” he writes in The Shape of Things to Come. “It violates the landscape; the only way to kill it is to cut it out.”

What strikes me about such uses of the semicolon is their arbitrariness, as if the semicolon were a mark of choice rather than of rule. Let me demonstrate the array of options inspired by the Marcus sentence:

  • “The Swede is the good son; Jerry is the bad son.”
  • But why not, “The Swede is the good son. Jerry is the bad son.”
  • Or “The Swede is the good son, but Jerry is the bad son.”
  • Or “The Swede is the good son, Jerry the bad son.”

If none of those possibilities is incorrect, then what impulse governs the writer? It sounds to me as if the writer is left with a musical decision. To the ear of Marcus, the semicolon without conjunction creates a balance achieved by simultaneous connection and separation.

What kind of object connects and separates at the same time? I supposed there are a number of correct answers, including the Cross Your Heart bra, but I’m thinking more of the swinging gate. That’s how I see the semicolon in my own writing, as a gate that stands between two thoughts, a barrier that forces separations but invites you to pass through to the other side.

Flickr Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy https://flic.kr/p/krnedH

Flickr Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy https://flic.kr/p/krnedH

New York standard bearers went gaga when reporter Sam Roberts found a semicolon in this subway sign: “Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.” Roberts wrote in the New York Times: “Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period, much less in exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.”

But one person’s pretentious anachronism may be another’s timely solution. So when would I use the semicolon in my own writing? My choices are governed more by sight than sound, especially on those occasions when the run of the sentence threatens to overflow the banks established by weaker forms of punctuation (for example, I do not think the Rowling passage would hold together if you replaced the semicolons with commas; periods would be blood clots in the flow of the sentence). Consider this autobiographical passage:

Growing up a baseball fan in New York in the 1950s was to be engaged in an endless debate with neighbors on who was baseball’s greatest center field: Duke Snider of the Dodgers, who was a sturdy defender and one of the most reliable sluggers in the league; or Willie Mays of the Giants, one of baseball’s first great black superstars, a man who on any given day could astonish you with his bat or his glove; or my idol, Mickey Mantle, the Yankee heir to the crown of Joe DiMaggio, who, when he was healthy, could run faster and hit the ball farther than anyone who ever played the game.

If I used only commas in that rambling and energetic sentence, there would have been ten of them, too many to help the reader keep track of its parts. When I substituted semicolons, the parts became clear. You can see them with your eye: a topic clause, followed by one part Duke, one part Willie, one part the Mick.

Just walk through the swinging gates to get from one part to another.

MORE: Copy Editor Essentials — What You Should Know in Your Sleep

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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