Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Opinions about Semicolons

When you live your life as an editor, you develop strange preoccupations, like the semicolon. Thankfully, Cecilia Watson has removed any temptation I might have had to spend vast amount of time on this subject by publishing Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019). 

If you're the sort of person who enjoys facts and commentary about punctuation, then welcome to our smallish club. For example, you will be able to answer the trivia question: What was the first book to use a semicolon, and name the publisher, author, and typesetter? The semicolon originated in Venice in 1494, during a time of time of great innovation in symbols of punctuation. Many swirls and lines and dashes and other symbols of punctuation were invented, and mostly discarded. But apparently, a printer and publisher named Allstud Manutius was the first to combine the comma and colon, and thus to create the semicolon. The book was De Aetna, by Piertro Bembo, a dialogue about climbing Mount Etna. The Bolognese type designer Francesto Griffo created the shape of the semicolon.

I especially enjoyed some of the more grandiose denunciations of the semicolon. Watson's book reminded me of Paul Robinson's essay several decades ago in the New Republic, "The Philosophy of Punctuation Against the semicolon; for the period" (April 26, 1980).  Robinson wrote:
Semicolons are pretentious and overactive. These days one seems to come across them in every other sentence. “These days” is alarmist, since half a century ago the German poet Christian Morgenstern wrote a brilliant parody, “Im Reich der Interpunktionen,” in which imperialistic semicolons are put to rout by an “antisemikolonbund” of periods and commas. Nonetheless, if the undergraduate essays I see are representative we are in the midst of an epidemic of semicolons. I suspect that the semicolon is so popular because it is the first fancy punctuation mark students learn of, and they assume that its frequent appearance will lend their writing a properly scholarly cast. Alas, they are only too right. But I doubt that they use semicolons in their letters. At least I hope they don’t.
More than half of the semicolons one sees, I would estimate, should be periods, and probably another quarter should be commas. Far too often, semicolons, like colons, are used to gloss over an imprecise thought. They place two clauses in some kind of relation to one another, but relieve the writer of saying exactly what that relation is. Even the simple conjunction “and,” for which they are often a substitute, has more content, since it suggests compatibility or logical continuity. (“And,” incidentally, is among the most abused words in the language. It is forever being exploited as a kind of neutral vocalization connecting two things that have no connection whatever.)

In exasperation I have tried to confine my own use of the semicolon to demarking sequences that contain internal commas and therefore might otherwise be confusing. I recognize that my reaction is extreme. But the semicolon has become so hateful to me that I feel almost morally compromised when I use it.
Or if you prefer a pithier comment on the colon, here's one from Kurt Vonnegut's 2005 book,  A Man Without A Country:
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First Rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college. 
June Casagrande puts the problem in more prosaic terms ("A Word, Please: Writers who use semicolons aren’t thinking about the reader," Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2015) 
Here’s a fun thing you can do with your writing: Take any two simple, clear sentences and use a semicolon to mush them into one. For example, imagine you have a paragraph with just two sentences. “The alarm went off. Joe hit the snooze.” Through the magic of semicolons, you can make that just one sentence: “The alarm went off; Joe hit the snooze.” Isn’t that a great idea?
This works just as well for long sentences that you want to mush into super-long ones: “On a stormy morning in January of 2015, the alarm in Joe Jacobson’s swanky Santa Monica condo went off, ushering in the morning with an ugly screech; Joe, a hung-over stockbroker deeply immersed in a dark, disturbing dream about the woman who’d broken his heart, reached for the clock and pounded the snooze button with the force of a jackhammer.”
When you understand how semicolons work, you see that any pair of sentences can be made one. Then, when you’re done, those longer Frankenstein sentences can themselves be mushed together, and so on and so on, until every paragraph you write is just one long sentence! Neat, huh? ...

I’ll kill the facetiousness here and just be blunt: Semicolons are trouble. ... They’re favored by writers who are so proud they know how to use semicolons that they’ll happily shortchange readers to show off their knowledge. They’re also a popular crutch among writers who don’t know how to manage all the information they want to convey, so they use semicolons to cobble it all into a single monstrous sentence. ... 
So just about any time you have two sentences next to each other, you could make the case for using a semicolon to fashion them into one longer sentence. A lot of writers do. They do so not because they believe the results will be better for the reader. They do so because they forgot the reader. They saw an opportunity to put their punctuation savvy on proud display and forgot that, as every professional writer knows, short sentences are more digestible. That’s why, to me, semicolons cause more trouble than they’re worth.
Of course, the fact that a punctuation mark or a word can be misused doesn't mean that it can't be well-used. For example, Herman Melville's Moby Dick is perhaps the literary champion of semicolon use. Watson makes this case at some length, concluding: 
Moby Dick .. was .. around 210,000 words, but had 4000 semicolons. That's one for every 52 words. The semicolons are Moby-Dick's joints, allowing the novel the freedom of movement is needed to tour such a large and disparate collection of themes.
She also points out that Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail makes exquisite use of the semicolon, as a way of linking together and drawing out a painful meditation in a way that forces the reader to follow along without a full stop for breath. (For example, see the paragraph that starts, "We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.")

So yes, the semicolon can require care in handling. But it offers a connectedness, continuation, and flexibility in situations when a period would create a break that is be too definite and firm a break, while a comma isn't enough of a pause. Watson writes:
The semicolon represents a way to slow down, to stop, and to think; it measures time more meditatively than the catchall dash, and it can't  be chucked thoughtlessly into just any sentence in place of just any other mark. ... Semicoloned sentences cannot be dashed off.
The short book also offers an excuse to roam through other rules of grammar, like whether to split infinitives. Watson tend to be in favor of good writing, but against rules. Me, I'm in favor of good writing, but I'm also favor knowing the rules--in part so that you can know when it makes sense to break them.