AN ELEMENT OF STYLE
by John M. Floyd
Since this is a site for readers and writers and — presumably — word lovers, I thought I’d cover an unusual topic this time. If my high school English teacher happens to read this, I believe she will (after regaining consciousness) be proud that I even tried to tackle it.
Between a comma and a period
Several years ago, British author Lynne Truss directed the attention of millions to a rather unlikely subject: punctuation. In her book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves she focuses on the use and misuse of every punctuation mark from the ellipsis to the exclamation point. This week I’d like to focus on the one that’s perhaps the most misunderstood. That mark is (insert drumroll here) . . . the semicolon.
How misunderstood is it? Well, I heard someplace that the then-editor of The New Yorker once said that anytime he received a fiction submission in which a semicolon was correctly used on the first page, he would then read all the way to the end of the manuscript. I don’t know if he really said that, but even if he didn’t, the implication is that semicolons are often used incorrectly.
A mark of distinction
I’ve never liked definitions because they seem to vary greatly depending on the definer, but here’s mine: A semicolon is a mark of punctuation most commonly used as a connector (separator) between two complete sentences that are too closely related to be separated by a period.
Semicolons of course play other roles as well. They sometimes accompany a “however” or a “therefore” in a compound sentence, and also come in handy to (according to June Casagrande in Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies) “help separate things that are really long and cumbersome or that are already bogged down with commas.” Even the meanest grammar snob would agree with that.
I found a few more quotes I thought were interesting. Patricia T. O’Conner says, in Woe Is I, “If a comma is a yellow light and a period is a red light, the semicolon is a flashing red — one of those lights you drive through after a brief pause.” And Noah Lukeman (A Dash of Style) reminds us that semicolons aren’t really necessary. Other punctuation marks can usually fill in and do almost the same job. But, as the luxury item in the store, he says, a semicolon adds a bit of elegance and artistry: “Business memos don’t need semicolons; creative writers do.” Bill Walsh of The Washington Post disagrees. He says, in Lapsing Into a Comma, “The semicolon is an ugly bastard, and thus I tend to avoid it.”
Raining vs. pouring
Unlike Mr. Walsh, I’m fond of semicolons, and I have to be careful not to use them too often. Their overuse, if you’re fortunate enough to spot it during revision, usually requires a semicolonoscopy — taking the offenders out and substituting dashes, periods, or even commas. Especially in dialogue. Opinions differ, but I feel that semicolons make dialogue appear a little too formal. (Consider the following: “Hurry up. Let’s go eat.” One might say the grammatically-correct period between the two sentences would be too much of a pause, and that an also-grammatically-correct semicolon would be better: “Hurry up; let’s go eat.” Well, it might be correct, but I think a semicolon there would seem too stiff and pompous, and even that shorter pause would be too long. In this case I’d prefer a comma. If you go by the book, the use of a comma there is improper because it causes the evil and despised comma splice, but it also echoes perfectly the rhythm of normal human speech, since there should be almost no pause at all between those two sentences: “Hurry up, let’s go eat.” Stephen King once said, “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness,” and that “language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.” Way to go, Steve-o.)
Even when not used in dialogue, I think more than two or three semicolons per manuscript page is probably too many, for fiction. Ms. Truss says, “Semicolons are dangerously habit-forming. Many writers hooked on semicolons become an embarrassment to family and friends.”
She’s right; that’s good advice; I should try to follow it.
I can’t resist including a silly ditty, here. (You were afraid of that, right?) This one, called “The Book Doctor,” is one I published ten years ago, in Byline Magazine:
- When edited, writers have said
Semicolons are something they dread;
What if someone had stolen
One half of your colon
And plugged in a comma instead?
That’d be enough to make anyone (grammar snob or not) a little grumpy.
(I also like parentheses.)