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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8 Comments

Filed under dialogue, punctuation, syntax

8 responses to “The semicolon: love it; or hate it

  1. Beth Sears

    For me it is the em dash and en dash. Love them to pieces and it shows in my work. The reader can barely get through the text!

    • Beth,

      I’ve about given up trying to teach my students the difference between en and em dashes—they were a printer’s distinction that must have made it only to the Mac, and 99 percent of my students use PCs. Two hyphens will make an em dash, as in typewriter days, and Word sometimes merges them into one but not always.

      I love em dashes, so much so that I go back and take out some of them, too. After seeing what Coetze did with the colon in “Disgrace,” I’m using it a lot more, sometimes in place of dashes.

  2. Richard:

    Did you ever read the rhetoric by Patrick Hartwell called Open to Language? It’s out of print a long time now, but I’ve never seen a better explanation of punctuation than he gave. It encouraged students to take risks with their writing by trying different elements and figuring out how they worked. He explained them so clearly as visual cues that have different impacts, which is why it was amusing to see that tough-guy comment rendered with a semi-colon. I am a huge semi-colon fan, probably because I was trained up in the brief sentence-combining era of the early 1970s. I have grown very fond of using colons as well. Hartwell says the colon is like an arrow: it shoots the reader forward.

    Mary

  3. Mary,

    Thank you, I will check out that book. I like the whole punctuation tool kit. Students’ papers are so stripped down in this regard: the period, the comma (under used), and the rare semicolon. No dashes, no colons, at all.

    Richard

  4. I love dashes. When I finally learned what they were for and how to use them, I started to use them all the time. I wish I used more semicolons, but I can’t seemed to figure out how to make them work. It’s tricky.

  5. David Bailey

    I’d never thought about semicolons used in quotes, but you’re dead right. A writer should never put one into the mouth of someone who doesn’t know what one is. Good post.

  6. I see your point on that last example; but generally speaking, I don’t have a problem with semicolons.