Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Lost Art of the Semicolon

Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
- Lewis Thomas

The semicolon is, apparently, going out of fashion. Ignoring for the moment the fact that those articles are all at least a year old, I have noticed a tendency in modern useage to eschew this much misunderstood punctuation mark. Whether this is due to ignorance, uncertainty or inverted snobbery is difficult to say, but I'm firmly convinced that the final wheezing breath of the semicolon would leave the English language poorer.

Not to go all Lynne Truss, but the rules as they stand aren't all that complicated. The first and simplest is in a list, to separate items which are already made complicated by multiple sub-clauses and commas. The semicolon is weightier than the comma, so you use it to mark the end of each item and let the internal commarage fight among itself.

Purpose two, and this is the one I would fight to protect: linking together two complete and otherwise independent clauses. It's easy to write simple sentences. They're short and punchy and tend to stick out. More complex sentences allow a certain poetry to leak into prose, with their subordinate clauses bringing a lyrical elegance to the page. Of course it's possible to go too far with regard complex sentence structure, creating something of a Frankenstein's Sentence where clauses, embedded in the middle of already multiply nested clauses, lead the reader, increasingly bewildered, deeper into a labyrinth of deepeningly, perhaps maliciously, postmodern prosody, occasionally branching off on diverse and whimsical tangents to discuss matters such as whether postmodernism, as a genre, could even be said to truly exist or if, as often claimed by those perhaps rightly suspicious of the difficulty of telling postmodern from poorly written, it's just a backlash against the rigid formalism of the 50s, or possibly an outgrowth of the punk era, although both of those arguments are undercut by works like Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which so severely pre-empt the period usually associated with 'modern' art, never mind postmodern, that they might be called pre-modern postmodernism, before returning to the original thread of discussion, which starts to resemble nothing so much as an Escher staircase (and parentheses never help, of course), with such abruptness that the reader, even if they were able to hold all the necessary information in their heads, and adequately separate all the red herrings and other superfluous data from the central line of syntax, is likely to faint, grow nauseous, or most often hurl the offending material at the nearest wall.

Yes, it's easy to write simple sentences. It's easy to fall into the flow of words, too and let them unfold flowerlike on the page. But what a semicolon alone allows is for a conceptual link to be built between two clauses; there's none of the comma's wishy-washy prevarication, nor the full stop's rigid demarcation. Only a subtle nudge to the frontal lobes, taking the reader gently by the hand and leading them to some secluded beauty spot they might otherwise have missed. It's punctuation as a intellectual tool, designed to provoke unexpected thought; yet at the same time the semicolon is an aesthetic necessity, slipping perfectly into the niche between comma and full stop. It's a pause with an authority the former lacks, but which possesses none of the latter's vulgarity; it adds rhythm and soul to an otherwise empty page, and I wouldn't do without. To so thoughtlessly abandon so delicate a tool seems a sign of Neanderthal crudity, like the proverbial hammer-wielder to whom every problem resembles a nail; or perhaps, as George Bernard Shaw once acidly commented, it is simply 'a symptom of mental defectiveness'.

Finally, in answer to Richard Hugo's graceless charge that the semicolon is not only useless but ugly to boot, I leave you with an opposing view:
It's the way the curve of the lower section seems to slide past the absolutist dot of the upper section. Irresistible!


Andy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy said...

I was recently sitting a Key Skills level 2 English paper, read multiple choice online exam, when a question about the use of semicolons came up. Now I know how they should be used and what they're for, but the question only wanted to know the list part, it seemed to completly ignor the other side of its nature. It bodes the question are they even teaching people about all its uses these days? But then I never paid attention to grammer in school anyways. Still that's life and the educational system I guess.

On the other hand I the thing that makes me wonder is why my college had me sitting a level two english key skills exam. But then they made me sit a level 2 communications exam the year before, despite knowing what my degree was in. Needless to say I passed both easily.

Mark said...

Yes, it's easy to write simple sentences.

I'm doing something wrong. :(

Mystery Cat said...

Andy: I imagine that's because the list bit is easy to quantify, whereas the other part, the beautiful part, is abstract enough that any real attempt to cage it will prove counter-productive.

Mark: Lies. That one there is just fine.

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