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Punctuation A case for the justifiable semicolon

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

  1. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I agree strongly with what @truthbeckons says here.

    I think the issue in question here is the purpose of the language, and language has many purposes.

    @truthbeckons is treating language as a vehicle for art. This is appropriate for a creative writer, and I agree with it. He and I are here on this forum because we're interested in creative writing, and hence in the forms of language use that facilitate art. This is strong motivation to stretch the "rules" of grammar and to (sometimes) break them outright. For lack of a better term, I'll call this advanced language.

    @socialleper sees the purpose of language as basic communication. As he points out, most users of language will be doing so to write emails and memos, and that's pretty much it. If they can do so with a minimum of mistakes, so they don't embarrass themselves, well, that's good enough for their purposes. K-12 teachers teach that kind of language use to that kind of user. I'll call this basic language.

    Basic language is of little use to a writer like Nabokov, McCarthy, Woolf, or Samuel R. Delany. They use advanced language, and twist and extend it to make it fit their purposes. The majority, the email-and-memo writers, don't recognize advanced use as conforming to what their teachers told them, so they are inclined to object to it. The email-and-memo writers are like painting contractors hired to paint a house. They'll likely paint the walls a solid color, something anonymous and inoffensive. This paint job will serve its purpose, though, so long as its purpose is the protection of the wooden walls from the elements. The creative writers are more like muralists, using the walls as giant canvasses on which they paint works of art. These murals do more than protect; they also dazzle.

    Dazzlers have their place in the universe, too.
     
  2. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Unanimity requires compliance Contributor

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    I've enjoyed some of Cormac McCarthy's work and hated others, but I would never hold him up as an example of anything other than "Learn the rules, then learn to break them." He doesn't use even use quotation marks, fer Nyarlathotep's sake.
    There's a Japanese saying that is, strangely enough, in English: TPO. Time, Place, Occasion. For academic writing, unless your command of English is otherwise impeccable, you should not start a sentence with a conjunction. I teach academic writing to students of English as a Foreign Language, and I am merciless about that. However, when I see it in a novel, memoir, or other non-academic work, I'm fine with it. Likewise, the decision to use semicolons in your fiction work should be based on the voice of the work. To take Cloud Atlas as an example (although I don't have my copy handy), I would expect to see semicolons in the dialogue of Rufus Sixsmith and even in the surrounding descriptions, but I'd be surprised to see them in the section set on the Big Island. It should all be about the tone that you want to establish in your story.
     
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  3. Shadowfax

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    1/ YES.

    2/ My daughter's secondary school English teacher was a Physical Training teacher who'd got too old to run around a sports field with the kids, so retrained in English - presumably on the basis of "You already speak the language, so how hard can it be?" Or perhaps on the basis of "You know bugger-all about science, maths or a foreign language, so what's left?"

    Whenever there was a tricky point of grammar, he would ask my daughter for verification.
     
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  4. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

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    Eh, I'm an articulate person. As @NoGoodNobu pointed out, this is how I tend to post, I'm not dialling anything up. It's a writing forum, after all, I take more liberty to be articulate here, whatever the topic is. More interesting for me to delve into one or two threads in depth than to make a meaninglessly brief remark here, there and everywhere.

    I think I'm confused as to why you're invoking bare basic writing rules then, and referring to the stuff that comes from the desks of people who don't read or write anything they don't have to. Again, this is a writing forum. I assume we're here to talk about good writing, not rudimentary writing.

    Besides, the antidote to the dryness of learning grammar is to get past petty rule sticklerism (what I'd call obstructive pedantry) and explore what actually makes writing effective, powerful and enjoyable to read. Almost no one really learns grammar by rote anymore; most people who thoroughly understand how it works do so by learning from example and internalising general principles.

    You seem to be advocating for the same method of regulating language that you admit in the same paragraph is boring, unpleasant and typically seen as pointless.

    I don't get what you're trying to defend. Sorry for drawing this out, but that's why it interests me. If I agreed with you on every point this would be a much duller conversation to pursue.
     
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  5. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    Uh, in't articulate like when you can speak good? I thought it was literate when you could write good.
     
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  6. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

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    See, obstructive pedantry.

    Nah, this is one meaning of "articulate", but it's also used to refer to clear and elaborate expression in a more general sense. Besides, "literate" sounds kind of pretentious to me, like I'm referring to my freaking posts as literature. (I just checked, and Merriam-Webster for one doesn't even refer to speech in any of the definitions.)
     
  7. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    That was about to be my next line you wit stealer! Along with 'did you scramble for the dictionary then?' Nah (2), I'm mucking about—your posts—I'm enjoying. You used a line in one of them that deserved it's own t-shirt.

    FWIW I took the 'grammarbook' test on the semicolon. Only scored 7/10 :meh:
     
  8. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

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    Aw, now I want to know which one.

    Ha, I just got a perfect score. The "therefore" one bothered me though, it's not a very good use.

    I think the thing that trips us up a lot is that it seems like we should think of a semicolon as some kind of colon, when it should really be thought of as existing somewhere in the twilight zone between comma and full stop.
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017 at 10:54 AM
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  9. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    For me, it's breaking habits, I use them when I draft (along with ellipses)— < and them there ems—like finger-beating a morse drum, I dab them out. Placeholders for pauses, put down without care so as not too interrupt flow. I'm most productive that way. The intent to pick them up in the spag round where, if I'm too casual, many get missed. Got an uber-meticulous proof-reader on board now for the polishing phase; they make me look better than I am.

    T-shirt for teacher:

    I misapply useful principles
    by prescribing them as
    absolute laws!​
     
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  10. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    When it's used in a sentence to separate two independent clauses, the statement that comes after the semicolon demonstrates the significance of the first statement. I think that's what is meant by two clauses being 'closely connected.' Or more closely connected than two complete sentences would be.

    Example: Most mothers love their sons; Griselda hated hers.
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017 at 1:15 PM
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  11. Commandante Lemming

    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    The semicolon is not bad in and of itself - when properly used it has it's place, it just oughtn't be used as a justification for poorly thoughtout run-ons. That said, I have a strong tendency to use a TON of dashes in my writing. They give me the same effect as a semitcolon, with a more prominent visual break and less thinking about whet the punctuation means. Granted, I expect to be raked over the coals by an editor for that someday (even if it is something I do one purpose for stylistic reasons).
     
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  12. truthbeckons

    truthbeckons Senior Member

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    Em dashes have their place (although I reckon the implication is quite different to a semicolon, since em dashes indicate a break or digression in thought more than a connection or concurrence), as long as you're not as addicted as, say, Anne Bronte.
    Honestly, all I can remember of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is... the woman naively married a jerk, and dash dash dash dash dash.
     
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  13. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    I love em-dashes, and over three books nobody has commented on them. It'll be interesting to see if I'm asked to remove any before publication...
     
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  14. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    My em-dash rate, just counted, is 1 per every 300 chars. Gulp. I'll take solace; maybe compared to Bronte it could be said the characters in my books are more dashing.
     
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  15. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    Okay, I take my post back. I thought was an em-dash fiend but I have 202 out of 405,000 characters (not including spaces). :D
     
  16. NoGoodNobu

    NoGoodNobu Contributing Member

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    It was always my feeling that while parenthesis are in obviously parenthetical asides, emdashes are more overt, related-but-not-strictly-on-point observations or clarifications. It's somewhat like a mini tangent of a lesser point in the sentence and not focused on the ultimate overall point. Or—as far as I'm aware—at least in the instances where it surrounds a clause or phrase.

    When it comes at the conclusion of a sentence I still think it enforces or clarifies the idea of the sentence. It just isn't an aside or mini rant. It's more directly on point.

    I found this page for info on emdashes, which I learnt that two emdashes are used for incomplete words or two to three for a completely omitted word.

    http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/em-dash.html

    I'm rather fond of emdashes. I wonder how frequently I use them?

    It seems quite frequently & casually, if my text messages & social media posts count for anything
     
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  17. SethLoki

    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    I've got all em-dash hyper-conscious now and am thinking I ought to cut down.

    Nice resource mind, that website; the header's nifty. I shall play with it for a while—although I have a feeling the semicolon page might crash my mac.
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2017 at 4:28 PM
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  18. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Active Member

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    I used a semicolon yesterday! Just to try it out, kind of like donning a lady's hat for a giggle in the mirror. It looked okay. I didn't immediately break into a rash or anything. I might leave it. Not sure yet. Still looks a bit foreign. But I'm coping.
     
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  19. Wreybies

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I agree completely, but as I said before, I think there's a train of thought in some people that commits to an internal argument that the above description (with which I completely agree) is a description that can be applied in the majority of cases of subsequent sentences - to some greater or lesser extent - and the subjectivity of that divide (mentioned by the OP) makes them give up on acknowledging a difference, so either a) they eschew the use of semicolons altogether, or b) they go at it whole hog, so to speak.

    I don't have a problem using semicolons. I use them when they are called for. I take note of when I have overused them, not because I have misused them, but because I have simply overused a given structure to the point of calling attention to itself, no different to the overuse of any dramatic structure in writing. When we overuse, we end up diluting the intent. Luckily, overuse of semicolons is not one of my bugbears; however, overuse of the "dramatic fragment" is something that taxes my vigilance. ;)
     
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  20. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributing Member Contributor

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    An interesting tidbit:

    I've found that when I'm inclined to comma splice is when I'm more inclined to use a semicolon, because, for whatever reason, those two sentences are connected enough in my head to make my fingers want to skip over the full stop. Usually, I'll eventually change it to a period or dash, but I just thought it was interesting the connection between those things. There's even a punctuation mark which expresses exactly what my brain registers as "separate but connected."
     
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  21. socialleper

    socialleper Member

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    I'm "invoking bare basic writing rules" because we are talking about rudimentary punctuation (semi-colons) and accidentally talking about conjunctions. Those are basic things.
     
  22. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    That's interesting. I'll think about that the next time I run across a comma splice. You could very well be right. In the head of the writer, the two clauses are connected ...so they use a comma because a period (full stop) seems inappropriate. Interesting.
     
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  23. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I often see comma splices in introductions. "My names Savannah, I'm 29 years old." Whether or not that warrants a semicolon is up to the writer, but the connection is the identity of the person making the introduction. I wouldn't use a semicolon there, but I can totally see the connection.
     
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  24. jannert

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I run into comma splices quite often when I'm beta-reading. I'll look at them with new eyes after this—and see if there truly is a thematic connection. There might be, at least in some cases.

    I don't know about you, but I sometimes ignore comma splices if they're in short bits of dialogue like that one about Savannah. It's technically incorrect, but sometimes it flows exactly as the speaker might say it. Dialogue is fun.
     
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  25. Spencer1990

    Spencer1990 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah. Obviously, there will be quite a few flat-out mistakes. I've worked so hard to not comma splice that when I encounter them in my own writing, there's usually some connection between the sentences.

    I don't know. Just interesting.
     
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