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Monday, May 28, 2012

Using the semicolon

By Dick Hirsch
    I’ve been rereading some of my own writing lately; that is always an illuminating and sometimes risky undertaking. One thing I noticed related to punctuation; as I grew more mature I began using the semicolon in frequent situations where years before I would have relied on the comma.

The semicolon has a questionable reputation. There are many persons who are intimidated by it; they avoid it. I was one of them. If I were able to gain access to some compositions I wrote for Mrs. Jane Smering at Bennett High School or, later, to Professor Thurman Hood, I am positive I would not find a single semicolon.

For years after the end of my formal education, I led a life that was semicolon free. I completely abstained, making my way in the world without them; my work was peppered with the usual number of commas. Eventually, however, I came to disdain the commas because there were far too many of them in general use. Yes, the comma was too common. In addition to their placement in long descriptive sentences, commas lurked in the damnedest places where their presence seemed to make comprehension more difficult rather than simpler.

In writing I’ve always felt that conversational style was most appropriate for my work. Sometimes as I sit at the keyboard I will occasionally pause and read a proposed sentence aloud. An innocent witness may think I am muttering; maybe it qualifies as muttering, but I don’t think so. By doing that, at one point I realized that the cavalcade of commas no longer resonated properly. I admire short sentences. However, the use of too many short sentences can result in a lurching product. Long sentences can bore and sometimes confuse the reader. Commas are supposed to yield a pause in the rhetoric, but I decided the type of brief stoppage created by the comma wasn’t strong and emphatic enough.

So I began experimenting with the semicolon, tentatively at first, because I was daunted by its rare appearance and mysterious reputation. Later I found that it has a heritage that dates to Elizabethan times. One of its early adherents was the English dramatist, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the contemporary of Shakespeare whose most famous work is Volpone, a satirical comedy. True, the semicolon has never gotten much respect, but it has been around.

This has never been a column that offers advice. That isn’t my specialty; I am still trying to determine whether I have a specialty and, if so, what it is. This is not a lesson in English; I will leave that to the grammarians. However, I am certain that if we could record the speech of the average person in a typical day we would find that he or she frequently uses verbal semicolons in conversation. They add vigor and emphasis and contribute timing.
The most common use of the semicolon is to connect two independent clauses. I have not opened a grammar book in a very long time, but I am able to recall the definition of that type of clause; it is a group of words that could stand on their own as a complete sentence.
The reputation of the semicolon has become more widespread in recent years but it has encountered resistance as more and more communications are being transmitted by e-mail or texting. Those mediums are not designed for complete sentences. They adopt the kind of lingo popularized during the age of telegrams when people counted words to stay under the limit and reduce the cost. In those venues there is no time for verbal niceties; toss in your nouns, your verbs and an occasional adjective and the message is ready for sending.

My own case is probably typical. I grew up in an age when the semicolon was the least popular form of punctuation. The comma prevailed. I checked one of my old reference books, the once popular Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage by Bergen and Cornelia Evans. They advised: “The semicolon is used primarily in formal writing.” Hmm. I disagree. They continued: “If a writer wishes to use an informal narrative style he should avoid semicolons as much as possible...they may slow down the reader unnecessarily.”

As a writer who strives for informality, I don’t believe that to be true. I defend the semicolon; moreover, I recommend its use in appropriate places. If you feel you require another opinion I suggest you consult the nearest grammarian and make an appointment for a semicolonoscopy.


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