Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Semicolon

I have a particular and peculiar love for the semicolon. In my writings -blog posts, e-mails, papers, fiction- the semicolon flourishes. There were 35 semicolons present on my blog page before this post was added. One belongs to Joss Whedon; the rest are mine alone. Semicolons are fun punctuation. They are especially helpful for those of us who tend to ramble and drivel on and on and on, who create run-on sentences like no tomorrow, and who wish to indicate how one thought flows into another. The semicolon can be described as being used for a particularly frilly kind of writing style; the kind that enjoys meandering walks around a subject instead of quickly and easily getting to the point of the matter. Those who enjoy short, concise sentences have no use for it. And it has apparently been steadily working toward dying out since the mid-eighteenth century. Which would be sad, for people like me.

Semicolons are now more often used to create emoticons than as an actual viable punctuation tool. Making faces like ;-D or ;-) or even ;^P is all well and good and fun. But I think we should embrace the semicolon as a wonderful tool. It allows for a more complex sentence structure. It expects a certain level of intelligence. And it neatly displaces commas that are otherwise unneeded. The prevalence, misuse, overabuse of commas is a particular peeve of mine. And part of the blame falls upon the fact that people don't understand or feel comfortable using semicolons. Instead of properly delineating two or more ideas, many people just assume that a comma would suffice. And then we're back to having run-on sentences and a confounding and confusing and irritating mish-mash of thoughts. It is as if we are afraid of the semicolon. No one really wants to go near the thing any more. It has become an outcast of punctuation, much like a properly used ellipsis. And that is too bad. I, for one, am not willing to give up my semicolon. It and I will be together for quite a long time; I don't care if Fiorello LaGuardia's favorite putdown of people he determined to be eggheads was "semicolon boy".

The New York Times in 1943 declared the semicolon to be "the enemy of action; it is an agent of reflection and meditation". I do think that they are right. And I think that we could all use a little more reflection and meditation in our lives and writing.

1 comment:

jjfs85 said...

The semicolon itself, if not used as punctuation in writing, will still be around for decades to come because it has found a niche in the world of programming. Many programming languages use our friend the semicolon as an end-of-line character. That is, following a single logical statement or command, the programmer places the semicolon to tell the compiler (the software that turns the human readable program into the 1's and 0's that the computer needs) to start reading the next line of code.