Daily Archives: July 21, 2010

The semicolon: love it; or hate it

Learn to use the semicolon. Master it. And then never use it again.—Verlyn Klinkenborg, in a lecture to MFA students at Goucher College

Kurt Vonnegut also hated the semicolon. Virginia Woolf was at the other end of the scale, of course, but when reading her I really want to replace some semicolons with colons or even dashes. (The Great Gatsby uses both semicolons and dashes beautifully; I’m not sure if it employs a colon.)

Years ago, after leaving newspapers, where semicolons are semiprecious, I went ape with their use, I suppose because semicolons seem fully literary. But I had one problem: I hated how the semicolon looked: to me, it was ugly as sin. I’ve mostly outgrown that aesthetic qualm, but I often go back and edit semicolons out of work where I threw them in in the heat of battle. I can see my logic—that this went with that—but in the end, overall flow and appearance might prevail.

I have one strong reservation remaining: the use of semicolons in quotes—especially in talk by tough guys. I first saw this in a story in The Washington Post, by a Pulitzer winner no less. I was sure how he felt: using it meant a lot to him, and he watched that semicolon like a hawk as it moved through the fumble-fingered copy desk.

But it made me ill. Tough guys don’t eat quiche and they don’t use semicolons!

Now here’s another, which appeared last week in my hometown paper, The Columbus Dispatch, in a story about a man gunned down during an argument outside a biker bar. The reporter went to interview some guys hanging out who saw the shooting:

“They need to bring Old Thunderbolt back,” an older man said, referring to the electric chair. “These people think they’re gangsters. Ain’t no gangsters; they’re all in the cemetery, rearing up daisies.”

To me, the semicolon ruins his punchy speech and violates his rights as a red-blooded American biker. But maybe that’s just me.

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Filed under dialogue, punctuation, syntax