1. Published on Amazon? If you have a book, e-book, or audiobook available on Amazon.com, we'll promote it on WritingForums.org for free. Simply add your book to our Member Publications section. Add your book here or read the full announcement.
    Dismiss Notice
  2. Dismiss Notice
  1. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

    Joined:
    Apr 1, 2017
    Messages:
    138
    Likes Received:
    121
    Location:
    Australia

    Punctuation A case for the justifiable semicolon

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by truthbeckons, Apr 13, 2017.

    I just came across a semicolon that I really liked in Olivia McCannon's translation of Old Man Goriot. It struck me because even when semicolons are used correctly, they're often just different options for sentence construction that don't really transform meaning. So I wanted to take this opportunity to open up a discussion of how semicolons can be used to meaningful effect, however subtle.

    Here's the sentence:
    I'd argue that this semicolon implies something different than a full stop would have, and something thematically significant.

    In this novel we keep seeing Eugéne wrestle with his conscience and attempt to justify his passionate impulses, even and especially when they become morally questionable. This sentence appears to occur at one of the points where the omniscient narration mixes in some of his own thoughts (at least in McCannon's interpretation of Balzac's original text) while it's summarising his situation and decision-making process.

    Because the two separate statements are connected (note: in a way that wouldn't work with a comma in the same place), it suggests that they're concurrent, like when you rationalise something on the spot by inventing a special category just to place yourself in it. It feels like that kind of ad hoc reasoning. It hints that Eugéne is giving himself too much credit for his good intentions by focusing on a specific trait which he associates with morality. That's just a hint though, it's ambiguous in a way that really works for me, opening up some main themes of the novel for consideration.

    It's highly contextual and so probably inadequately summarised, but I'm excited to be able to point to a semicolon and say that it belongs there.

    If you can think of any examples of semicolon use that you've read (or hell, written) that you thought added meaning, please feel free to share them. Examples are often the best way to understand something, and it's not easy to think of an example of an effective semicolon off-hand.

    I want to collect examples showing different ways that semicolons can actually earn their keep, since grammar guides only ever explain/demonstrate how to use a semicolon correctly, not how to use them well. (If you're a little unclear about the rules of semicolon use, which a ton of us are, my favourite of these how-to guides is illustrated by The Oatmeal). But to really master any aspect of writing, you have to understand why you might use something, just as much as how to use it. So I can understand the general confusion around semicolons, which are anything but straightforward.

    Nonetheless, semicolons shouldn't be the dumping ground of confused punctuators. Once I heard someone say "If you're not sure how to connect two things, just use a trusty semicolon every time. They can do anything." (This wouldn't have knifed my soul if it hadn't come from an English teacher in training. She's the sort of person who lacks a natural grasp of spelling and grammar, and more to the point, she knows that she doesn't get it and isn't the least bit interested in sorting out her own confusion. Soon she'll be instructing bewildered kids in the art of written language, and I just try not to think about it.)

    I cherish the deftly employed semicolon all the more because it's such a rarity. Obviously it's true that people tend to whip them out gratuitously and incoherently. I know a lot of accomplished writers are happy to go without them, or proud to avoid them, and I don't think their writing is necessarily weaker for it. Still, I think it's a misconception that semicolons can't do any good, and if you keep an eye open for situations where they can serve a purpose, that's just one more arrow in your quiver.
     
    jannert, Shadowfax and Stormburn like this.
  2. Stormburn

    Stormburn Senior Member

    Joined:
    Mar 28, 2017
    Messages:
    134
    Likes Received:
    108
    Location:
    Traveling Contractor
    I heard in one lecture: " A semi colon should be used no more than twice in a book."
    I would like to believe the lecturer was saying this with a little tongue in cheek, but there is a real anti semi colon bias out there.
    Your example is perfect and thank you for posting.
    Godspeed!
     
  3. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,904
    Likes Received:
    5,116
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Celebrated essayist Lewis Thomas had this to say about the semicolon:

    "I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer."

    I like that. :)
     
  4. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 1, 2011
    Messages:
    803
    Likes Received:
    652
    Location:
    Manchester UK
    I like that too @minstrel. Being a habitual user I'm sure there are more than too many littered about my drafts; and not a few mocking me, for their misplacement, in finished pieces. I'm gonna print that quote out and drawing pin it to something appropriate.
     
  5. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

    Joined:
    Apr 1, 2017
    Messages:
    138
    Likes Received:
    121
    Location:
    Australia
    Like that one there, sitting improperly next to a conjunction?

    *is wilfully insufferable*
     
    SethLoki likes this.
  6. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    2,868
    Likes Received:
    1,589
    ***Shivers***

    My son's school sent home a book that the English department had created to help the kids with their spelling...containing several misspellings!!!

    (TBH, my son is such an artist in the sphere of creative misspelling that you come to doubt the correct spelling...)
     
  7. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 1, 2011
    Messages:
    803
    Likes Received:
    652
    Location:
    Manchester UK
    It's in bold too. :D @truthbeckons
     
  8. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 8, 2017
    Messages:
    1,144
    Likes Received:
    1,181
    Location:
    The People's Republic of New Hampshire
    From Kurt Vonnegut: “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.”

    Cormac McCarthy: “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.”

    Hemingway and King don't use them either. Interesting how some writers think they're God's gift to grammar and others think they're a clear sign of the apocalypse.
     
    jannert likes this.
  9. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,904
    Likes Received:
    5,116
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    "You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars?"

    - Ernest Hemingway, To Have and Have Not, very first sentence. (Thirty-five words, too - who says Hemingway only wrote short sentences?)
     
  10. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 8, 2017
    Messages:
    1,144
    Likes Received:
    1,181
    Location:
    The People's Republic of New Hampshire
    Interesting. I saw him on the list of haters somewhere. Maybe they meant he used them sparingly. Personally, I think semicolons are a bit like the human appendix: a useless, vestigial organ that nobody pays much attention to until it starts to hurt.
     
  11. Jupie

    Jupie Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2011
    Messages:
    133
    Likes Received:
    72
    Never read Mary Renault. She goes absolutely mental with semi-colons. I had to have a long lay down in a darkened room for some time.
     
    jannert likes this.
  12. thirdwind

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,421
    Likes Received:
    2,931
    Location:
    Boston
    That's a pretty good way of looking at it.
     
    Apollypopping likes this.
  13. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,904
    Likes Received:
    5,116
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Why do some people dislike semicolons so much? They demand that those of us who like semicolons justify them, as though these innocuous punctuation marks have offended these people somehow. Why don't the semicolon-haters justify their hate? Semicolons are just tools in a writer's toolbox. A writer hating them is akin to a mechanic hating a socket wrench. It doesn't make any sense.
     
    jannert, KaTrian, Shadowfax and 3 others like this.
  14. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2016
    Messages:
    1,672
    Likes Received:
    1,923
    Both sides are silly.

    Use them if you like them. Don't if you don't.
     
    Homer Potvin likes this.
  15. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

    Joined:
    Apr 1, 2017
    Messages:
    138
    Likes Received:
    121
    Location:
    Australia
    I think it's misdirected resentment for the authors who use them badly.

    Plus that effect whereby bad things stick in the mind more than good things, so it's easy to think of only bad examples of something you generally dislike. Well-executed techniques tend to be invisible unless you're looking for them, but bad writing draws attention to itself, and that goes for punctuation too.

    This is why I want to highlight more examples of effective semicolons, rather than argue for them in theory. (There are lots of things that only sound good in theory, after all.)


    The argument here isn't that people should like all the awful semicolons they've noticed, or even that semicolons should be used more than they generally are.

    The argument is for better semicolons, not for more or less. I think counter-example simply disproves the argument that semicolons never do anything interesting.

    People who write them off might benefit from noticing/considering/appreciating the rare examples where a semicolon does something that other punctuation doesn't. Others who just have no idea how to use them (and some who use them anyway) can think of semicolons in terms of what meaning they can add, rather than only learning when they're technically allowed to be used. That's all I'm suggesting.

    Again, thinking of this punctuation choice as a technique, a technique in itself doesn't become useless or terrible in itself just because a lot of people don't know how to do anything good with it or amateurs tend to mangle it. The "most examples are bad, therefore the thing is always bad" fallacy, like Sturgeon pointed out, would compel us to dismiss the potential of way too many things in life if we were to accept that reasoning in itself.
     
    Stormburn likes this.
  16. Stormburn

    Stormburn Senior Member

    Joined:
    Mar 28, 2017
    Messages:
    134
    Likes Received:
    108
    Location:
    Traveling Contractor
    To me, this is the perfect definition on why to use a semicolon. A writer who uses a semicolon to make that green underline in MSWord to go away is the perfect example of why not to use a semicolon.
    Godspeed!
     
  17. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,904
    Likes Received:
    5,116
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Here are some examples of semicolons used by excellent writers, some of whom qualify as legitimate virtuosos of prose. These are all from my own limited collection.

    ***************

    The wife before that, Margot, had been his first, and he’d known her since he’d worn shoulder pads and spikes and she cried out his name from the sidelines, her big chocolate eyes wide with excitement and the black bobbed hair cutting a Spanish fringe across her brow; she’d taken the first house, the children and his self-respect.

    - T.C. Boyle, “Acts of God”


    Thatched roofs are spun onto their poles like old straw brooms; sheds and cabins sag.

    - Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country


    Yet everything he saw could be lost inside the stupendous volcano he must face less than a year from now; Kilauea was merely a scale model of Olympus Mons, and all their training might leave them hopelessly unprepared for the reality.

    - Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End


    My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.

    - Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


    His had swung up; yellow nails hit the Mouse’s cheek.

    - Samuel R. Delany, Nova


    Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out.

    - Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall


    The Mantel example is two consecutive sentences that each contain a semicolon!
     
    Shadowfax likes this.
  18. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2016
    Messages:
    1,672
    Likes Received:
    1,923
    But not using them does not make a writer deficient or bad.
     
  19. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

    Joined:
    Apr 1, 2017
    Messages:
    138
    Likes Received:
    121
    Location:
    Australia
    Has anyone said otherwise? This point was already made.
     
  20. socialleper

    socialleper Member

    Joined:
    Apr 11, 2017
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    25
    I personally like semicolons, but I read a lot of things that are older, where their use is more common. In regular, non-dialog, prose, I see no reason not to use them. Yes, you could restructure things to not use them, but why go out of your way not to use them? I've been advised against using them in dialog, the reason being that people don't really talk that way. I guess I can go along with that.
    I'm also a firm believer in the Oxford comma, and the never using "and" or "but" to start a sentence unless it is dialog.
     
  21. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,904
    Likes Received:
    5,116
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    Oxford comma? Okay. But never starting a sentence with "and" or "but"? Not okay - start your sentences with any word you want. Use long sentences if you want to. Short sentences, too. Also sentence fragments. Just generally mix things up. Some of the most beautiful - and effective - prose is written that way.

    Oversimplifying your prose cheats the readers. They wind up never developing their reading skills beyond, say, fifth-grade level because they aren't challenged. If writers only write simple prose, they're teaching their readers to stick to the bunny hills at the ski resort. The readers never learn to master the black diamond runs, and so they miss a huge amount of the pleasure they could be experiencing.
     
  22. OJB

    OJB Active Member

    Joined:
    Nov 19, 2016
    Messages:
    394
    Likes Received:
    286
    Location:
    Chicago, IL.
    One of the uses of Conjunctions in prose is to create dramatic effects in sentences. This is done by starting a sentence with a conjunction. The key is to understand what effect is created by this when you do this, and if you are doing it properly.
     
  23. socialleper

    socialleper Member

    Joined:
    Apr 11, 2017
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    25
    I would think that using "and" or "but" is oversimplification. Using it in dialog is fine because people often speak that way. However, (see what I did there) starting a narrative sentence can be viewed as amateurish, which makes it unacceptable in non-fiction writing or business documentation.
     
  24. Jupie

    Jupie Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2011
    Messages:
    133
    Likes Received:
    72
    Non-fiction maybe in say an academic paper. I don't know exactly. But it's fine to start with those words in storytelling and can be quite seamless!
     
  25. socialleper

    socialleper Member

    Joined:
    Apr 11, 2017
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    25
    One the other hand, it's fine to start with....
    or
    However, it's fine to start with...

    You can't tell me you didn't loose points on an essay or writing project in school by starting a sentence with a conjunction.

    I understand it is personal taste. I'm terrible with grammar, but for some reason that one stuck with me.
     

Share This Page