The Shades of Semicolons

 

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.

Kurt Vonnegut

 

That quote from Vonnegut sparked a lively discussion among a group of writers on Facebook recently. What follows is some of the conversation.

 

Response: “Sorry, Vonnegut, but semicolons actually represent a shade of silence. Hating semicolons is idiotic. Why shouldn’t we use the entire spectrum of pauses and silences available to us?”

Genie: “ ______ is right! There’s a definite place for semicolons; the trick is finding the right one.”

Response: “Well, these absolutes don’t hold water. Stephen King says, ‘Adverbs are your enemy,’ but they have their place when consumed in moderation.”

Response: “Second rule … Kurt Vonnegut can do whatever he wants; I can do whatever I want, too.”

Response: “Use short sentences, never use semicolons and whatever you do never depend on your own editing or computer editing.”

Genie: “I agree with the first and third statements, especially the one about computer editing. And I’ll add ‘use short, simple words’ to that. If we change the second to ‘use semicolons judiciously,’ then I can agree with that one too. [The image] of a ‘shade of silence’ is perfect, and no other punctuation captures it in the same way. But they should be used sparingly and never, ever in place of a comma or colon. IMHO, of course …”

 

In my far from humble opinion, the semicolon is a much maligned and much misused little punctuation mark. It doesn’t serve the same purpose as a comma; nor does it take the place of a colon, and therein lies the rub. Commas indicate a brief pause to separate clauses, thoughts and parts of written conversation (“You’re so beautiful,” he said). Colons are intended to get the readers’ attention, as a heads-up that something important is on its way. Semicolons, on the other hand, have their own beauty and simplicity.

Think of it like breathing. Commas are the quick, shallow breaths that move our writing – and reading – along; colons are the deep breaths that slow us down and bring fresh air to our work to stimulate the construction of our words and thoughts; and semicolons are somewhere in between.

That ‘shades of silence’ metaphor is perfect, because there are times when neither the comma nor the colon provides the right amount of oxygen to our words. It doesn’t – and shouldn’t – happen very often, but there are times when a sentence needs to take a deeper breath than a comma but not as deep as a colon, and that’s when the semicolon is needed.

Leonard Rosen explains that “The semicolon signals a pause longer than a comma but briefer than a period.” In The Everyday English Handbook Rosen explains the various ways semicolons are used: between independent clauses in a long compound sentence; for emphasis; in a series of items that contain punctuation “and/or when they are especially long” [as I’ve done here]; to coordinate conjunctions and adverbial “conjunctions that normally join two independent clauses”; and more (pgs 128- 130).

It’s important to note that semicolons should NOT be used when writing conversations or narrative in our fictional works. As one of my wise mentors told me, we can’t ‘see’ semicolons in our verbal speech with one another. The same holds true in our characters’ dialogues. Semicolons should be – IMHO – reserved for non-fiction writing.

What about using semicolons in poetry? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish altogether! Frankly, I never use them in my poems. I use dashes or ellipses instead because some of my poetry is designed to be read aloud and performed, so I use punctuation that serves as stage directions for me. If I post or submit that same poetry, I change the punctuation for easier reading by others. Poetry is so personal and subjective, each person must decide what kind of punctuation makes his or her work most effective.

I love the conversations that can develop on Facebook based on people’s postings! Subjects like this always get me thinking – and sometimes even provide fodder for a column. For a more humorous ‘take’ on semicolons, check out a poem written and performed by a late friend of mine: go to http://www.youtube.com/user/ShoesTooDeep2 and look on the right for ‘Colonoscopy.’ The pertinent line is the last one. Enjoy!

 

©ERR 5/2010 (previously published on the KPN.com Website)

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