Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Pesky Semicolon

I once had an editor who did not like semicolons. If I used them in something I submitted, they would disappear by the time the piece hit print. I think I know where they all went: into Emoticon World (where it means, I guess, a wink) and into Tattoo Land (where, the web tells me, it now means the decision to go on--not to stop your life because of depression).

It took me a long while to learn to use them "correctly." I have a few papers I wrote in college, and I seem to have used them whenever I had a long sentence. Almost every instance I've found is "wrong."

I place correctly and wrong in quotation marks, by the way, to indicate that correctness and incorrectness in usage and punctuation are, of course, things we have made up. Moses did not bring them down the mountain. The semicolon has evolved over the years since a printer first created it. (More below.)

Just flip through any Victorian novel. Dickens, Trollope, Austen--all of them just plop them in the way I did in college, almost willy-nilly--an expression, by the way, that the OED dates back to the early 17th century (will I? nill I? etc.).

But by the time I was going through school, the semicolon had calcified and now had several fixed functions:

  • To separate, sans conjunction, two or more independent clauses (i.e., groups of words that could stand together as a sentence).
    • I bought a car; it cost too much; I took it back; they refused to accept it; ...
  • To use in a list or series that includes commas; the semicolon helps prevent confusion.
    • To the party I invited Bob; Mary, his sister; Fred; and Billy the Kid.
  • To use in this kind of elliptical sentence.
    • George came early to party; Tom, late.
  • To use use between clauses of a compound sentence that are joined by conjunctive adverbs (therefore, however, etc.).
    • I went early to the theater; however, others had already bought all the tickets.
I got to thinking about this today because I'm reading (and hoping to finish this afternoon) Ian McEwan's latest (and terrific) novel, Nutshell (a contemporary story based on the Hamlet plot). At one point McEwan's narrator (an unborn child in the womb!) says, "I'll feel, therefore I'll be" (145). I started thinking about how a semicolon--which is "correct"--would ruin this sentence--would add a weighty mark that would drag down the buoyancy of the thought.

Novelists and other writers often play with "correctness," as we know ... poetic license and all that.

Trusty Wikipedia credits an Italian printer--Aldus Manutius--with the creation of the mark in 1494. (Hey, just two years earlier ... Columbus?) And I love the quotation the OED selected from Ben Jonson in its list of examples (Jonson's is the earliest they give--from 1637): A Semicolon is a distinction of an imperfect Sentence, wherein with somewhat a longer Breath, the Sentence following is included. Jonson, by the way, is often credited for popularizing the mark.

Well, I still use semicolons; and correctly, too. (Ha! Irony!)

Let's let Charles Dickens have the last word. This is from the second paragraph of Chapter 1 ("I Am Born") in David Copperfield. (I've enlarged the semicolons and made them red; I am so clever.)

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

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