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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Exploring Your Inner Semicolon

Grammar is not my forte. I remember learning sentence analysis back in junior high; we had these tiny little text books that were a quarter of the size (size not length) of all the other text books, the implication being that grammar just wasn't important, especially when compared to the American history tomes we dragged around in our backpacks. So my writing style, as you can see demonstrated in the previous sentence, has evolved into a mess of commas and hanging phrases driven mostly by an assessment of whether something sounds right.

It was with pleasure and amusement that I stumbled across this article a couple months ago in the New York Times devoted to the semicolon, inspired by a recent use of the mysterious punctuation in a transit system public service advertisement. For a grammar challenged writer, the semicolon has always seemed to me like a vague shadowy tool. What exactly is the semicolon for and why would I ever need it? The linked article actually provides a rather clear explanation:
Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without, as style books advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma.
Semicolon sightings are rare for me indeed. When I spot one in a text, I find myself compelled to roll back and forth over the sentence, trying to ascertain exactly what compelled the writer to use it. When I've seen one in the prose of a fellow writer, I've thought to myself, "he must be a genius!" Because it must take exceptional confidence in oneself to utilize this strange half-breed tool, the semicolon.

At the website for Purdue University's Online Writing Lab I found this page about the comma vs. semicolon. At the bottom, they provide links to two short comma vs. semicolon quizzes that you can take and score. After getting 100% on each quiz, I am emboldened with more confidence in my semicolon usage.

What I still haven't found an answer for is why? Why use a semicolon? What emotional elements or prose context for your sentences would indicate that you need a half stop instead of a full stop? Until I find an answer to that question for myself, or within my prose, I will continue to throw my commas around willy nilly and bring all sentences to full stops, reserving the semicolon for winking emoticons. ; - )


eloise said...

The period is a closer. Someone who gets the job done, and then starts anew in the next sentence. The comma is weak, connects sentence fragments, half-baked ideas, and lists. The semi-colon is precious; it tells us that two complete ideas think they are both strong enough to stand on there own, but nuanced enough to know that in actuality that isn't the case.

Last Knight said...

"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."
Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country

Needless to say, I don't agree. ^_^ But I found the quote amusingly appropriate.

Andi said...

Ha! This made me giggle. I generally tell my students that the semicolon is simply a stylistic choice and it looks kinda highbrow. After I've explained how to use it, that is. I'm *so* not a grammar Nazi when I teach. Unfortunately, I'm of the school of "if it sounds and looks right."