1.21.2005

What is the deal with the semicolon?

I don't use it. Never, in years and years of writing. OK: in a series of long phrases where a comma would just be more confusing. But in 99% of cases I use a period. If I'm in a scrape, I'll add a conjunction to a comma. I'm not above the ellipsis ... at all. I overuse it in fact. I'll whip out the em dash -- which I also overuse and love. Why? It's so out there, so visible and dramatic, and maybe I was programmed because of James Joyce hating quotation marks. And I love the colon. Here's why: because Kurt Vonnegut used it so much, and I wanted to write like him. He wore off, but the colon remained in triumph.

But the semicolon? Come on! What is it, even? It's half-assed, tentative, blase, worthless garbage, if you ask me. Shit or get off the pot, semicolon! If you divide two independent clauses, you just can't compete with the period, I'm sorry. Sure, you show those clauses are related, but duh, who really has trouble getting that from the context? You don't supply the pause between dependent phrases, don't introduce a series, indicate time's passage, or refer back stylishly to a point just made. What the hell do you do?

And yet I fear I'm wrong about everything I just said. I fear that the semicolon is indeed a unique and valuable citizen of conjunctionland. That it is I who is at fault. That I just don't know how to use it. That it's my blind spot, my Achilles heel, my embarassing gaffe. That my novel won't have one semicolon in it, and reviewers will be all over me. Hell, I may as well admit it: I'm freaking scared of the semicolon. I mock what I fear, and I fear what I do not understand.

3 comments:

gwarbot said...

You're kind of in a position of power. It's not been hammered into you at this point, obviously. But I like semicolons, although I seem to only use them in the same way. They do this specific thing I need, I guess. I would guess their best places are in the essay or in non-fiction analyses.

ian said...

But without the semicolon, how would emoticons wink?

TLB said...

The semicolon is often considered the red-headed stepchild of punctuation; however, its uses are so simple, its rules so easy to follow, that I find myself surprised at its place in the grammar universe. I use it very often to spice things up in the rhythm of my prose, especially when a period feels like too much and one more conjunction will bore me to tears. Hooray for the semicolon! I will champion its (proper) use and argue that Grendel should not smear its good name, especially because most people use a dash when they really need that beautiful, heartfelt handshake of a semicolon, that glorious kiss that brings two independent clauses together in faithful harmony.