On Semicolons

Get a handful of writers together and ask them about punctuation—not an unreasonable request—and I guarantee someone will harp about semicolons before long. They wouldn’t be alone. While proper use of punctuation makes a lot of people nervous, the semicolon can lead to apoplexy.

Kurt Vonnegut is a notable example. Speaking to fiction writers, he said, “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Vonnegut’s contemporary George Orwell complained about the punctuation mark’s “ugliness, or irrelevance, or both.”

Even politicians have disdained the semicolon. New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.”

La Guardia

Knowing this history I was pleasantly surprised when I came upon, and liked, Cecilia Watson’s recent book titled, of course, “Semicolon”. Watson takes readers on a romping grammatical/historical journey as she maps the life and near-death of a humble punctuation mark that was once the pet of the literary elite.

A historian and philosopher of science, Watson currently teaches writing at Bard College. Knowing those academic credentials, a would-be reader might understandably anticipate heavy going, but they’d be wrong. Watson’s text is a thoroughly entertaining ride enriched by prose from Milton to Martin Luther King along the way.

Watson points to Raymond Chandler as a writer who really knows how to use semicolons. In the excerpt below she says the musicality and emphasis simply works, and you can almost hear the rise and fall of Chandler’s voice as he brought pen to paper.

“Many have died; but not he, not she; not yet.”

Like many authors, books about the craft of writing are within easy reach in my office. (I favor Stephen King’s down-to-earth “On Writing” and the equally useful “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.) Once in a while, I consult a punctuation guide (given its title, “The Best Punctuation Book, Period” is my favorite) but not often.

No worries there, I learn from Watson. Paying too much attention to the rules of grammar, she says, decreases our ability to speak to readers because that’s what language is about—communication. Grammar is about rules and their application. Communication, verbal and nonverbal, is about opinions, ideas, thoughts, facts, emotions, and more. We writers are communicators, not grammarians.

A final word from Watson for semi-colon fans: no worries, your beloved punctuation mark isn’t going away.



About Charlene DAvanzo

I'm a marine ecology/college professor who never, ever thought I'd write fiction. That assumption changed in an instant as I listened to another scientist - a climatologist named Ray Bradley at UMass, Amherst - describe being harassed by climate change deniers. The idea to write mysteries with climate change understories to help readers understand what's happening to our climate in the context of a fast-paced exciting story came to me out of nowhere. That's what I do in my "Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi" series.
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2 Responses to On Semicolons

  1. Tina Swift says:

    As you know, I love punctuation! To me, a semicolon suggests an aside … And, by the way, how do you feel about the space before and after an ellipse?

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