People underestimate semicolons. No, really, they do. I can’t wait for the day when that poor, sidelined punctuation mark gets up, shakes itself and shows the world that it’s boss.
Not that the words ‘poor’ and ‘sidelined’ apply at all to the semicolon. Those sneaky little buggers have a way of worming themselves into your language and then staying there, whether you like it or not. You’ll be using semicolons in your speech without even knowing it; you’ll be giving those little breaks and pauses which sound absolutely ridiculous with a comma, into which the hitherto-scorned semicolon fits like a hand in a glove. In a week, you’ll be using more semicolons than full stops; before the end of the month, you’ll be wondering how you ever survived without them.
Friction proves the gold genuine, they say; and perhaps no punctuation mark has been taken apart, stitched back together, rubbed raw, kicked around and generally been ill-used by well-meaning grammarians the way the semicolon has. Yet it persists, nay, thrives, and its power only grows day by day. Surely this dogged perseverance, this never-say-die attitude, is a sign that it is worthy of being accepted into the legions of accepted punctuation marks of English grammar, for this persistence is the hallmark of winners.
To say that Bernard Shaw sprinkles his work with this most controversial punctuation mark would be an insult to the artistry of a maestro; but certainly, in his writing, we see a man who venerates them and accuses the famous T. E Lawrence of ‘mental defectiveness’ for employing practically none in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.He writes thus:
“You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.”
On the other hand, Gertrude Stein has this to say:
“They [semicolons] are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature.”
Here are some other viewpoints:
“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, A Man Without A Country.
“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.” ~Abraham Lincoln.
“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.
With all due respect, Vonnegut’s dismissal of the semicolon seems to me too peremptory. It doesn’t do the semicolon- either its virtues or its perceived ills- any justice. And god, it’s caustic; it’s like he has a personal grudge against the punctuation mark. I mean, ‘transvestite hermaphrodite’, really? I don’t even know if that’s possible. But that aside, the semicolon does not only ‘show that you’ve been to college’. Alright, it might indicate a well-educated young writer well acquainted with all the rules of grammar. But I believe it shows someone with a flexible mind. The writer who uses semicolons can follow the threads of an idea to the end, and can do so elegantly, combining both long sentences and short sentence fragments effortlessly. Semicolons are, I think, not like ‘a wooden bench… where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath’. I simply think of them in a manner more similar to Abraham Lincoln: ‘it’s a useful little chap’.
But really, who am I to tell you what punctuation marks to use, and the pros and cons and the nature of each? I use semicolons, but I can’t presume to advise you whether or not to use them. But I will say this: