The Esteemed Semicolon, Neglected

I have never used semicolons. They don’t do anything, don’t suggest anything. – Kurt Vonnegut

Those words probably didn’t single-handedly relegate the semicolon to the realm of suggestively-winking emoticons, but they seem to effectively reflect the zeitgeist concerning that beleaguered character. Sure, the semicolon is difficult to use: the clauses on each side must be independent, except when it is used to separate the elements of a list. If the clauses are independent, why not just make separate sentences? And why would one use a semicolon (rather than the omnipresent comma) to delineate the items of a list?

You may have noticed that I use semicolons. Frequently. Too often, some might say. For a while, it bothered me that I saw so many semicolons in my e-mail, but not often in the e-mail messages that I received. (Well, it didn’t bother me enough to lose sleep, but I digress.) Perhaps, I thought, the language of Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges was becoming archaic, barely translatable to modern language, like Beowulf.

And then I found a continuous and copious paean to the semicolon: http://www.oneletterwords.com/weblog/?c=Semicolon

I am buoyed by that blog. I will continue to use that most mysterious of characters, in all its wondrous glory, when the pause of the period is too pregnant and that of the comma is not pregnant enough, when the interplay, the tension, between two independent clauses is so overt that their separation does them a disservice.

Epilogue

And then there’s the two-spaces-after-a-period “rule” that seems to be falling by the wayside, especially given that web browsers, in a monomaniacal ambition to sanitize web corpora, will convert all double spaces to singles. (Unless you choose to use the ever so intuitive   sequence. (Hey! A semicolon!)) Some interns of mine a few summers ago did not even know that they were supposed to put two spaces after a period; presumably, they once learned it in seventh grade, but were never forced to apply it.

Though this conversion happens en masse, and without permission, I will continue to jab that spacebar twice in response to a period, and let the automation of modern editors and browsers erroneously sanitize them. A useless act of defiance on my part.

Pop quiz: how many spaces after a semicolon? Maybe that’s another reason that semicolon sightings in the wild have become so rare. (Answer: one space. But two spaces after a colon. Intuitive, no?)

Epilogue’s Epilogue

I’m not actually a grammar disciplinarian. The point of language is to communicate; living languages are vibrant, and adjust over time to reflect societal changes. Those developments should be accepted as inevitable, even enjoyed as the addition of a new flavor to an old recipe. I just find it to be a shame that certain characters fall into disfavor merely because they are slightly more difficult to use. Laziness has only rarely resulted in worthwhile mutation. (“O RLY?” you might reply. Yes. Really.) Variances in sentence length and structure are one of the things that can make language pleasurable, rather than strictly utilitarian.

Oh, and I find it easier to visually parse sentences when they are separated by dual spaces. Perhaps your experience differs.

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2 comments

  1. You mentioned both Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges, and I still haven’t caught back my breath. What a perfectly delightful entry, even if you did link to my own “Semicolon’s Dream Journal.” My favorite line: “I will continue to use that most mysterious of characters, in all its wondrous glory, when the pause of the period is too pregnant and that of the comma is not pregnant enough, when the interplay, the tension, between two independent clauses is so overt that their separation does them a disservice.” Bravo!

  2. Greetings from the distant past!

    I googled your name and this page popped up – I recognized your picture, and then as I read through your rambling thoughts about the semicolon, I recognized more.

    At first I thought, “This has to be the most anyone has thought about a semicolon in the history of mankind.” Then I connected to the link you provided and realized that there is an entire semicolon loving sub-culture out there. Wow! Live and learn.

    Anyways – I thought I’d say hello. My wife and I (and our three kids) live in New Braunfels, so maybe we can hook up for lunch sometime. Weird, huh? A couple of kids from NE Ohio end up living 50 miles apart 1500 miles from where they grew up.

    Give me a call or email and maybe we can set something up.

    Peace.

    Phil Brown
    Coventry High School Class of 1993
    (still a member of the Loyalist Rebellion – remember that?)


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