The Semicolon War: A Punctuation Problem

Recently, The New Yorker and The New York Times published pieces professing love for the semicolon. The question of how to properly use a semicolon, both articles note, always ignites great debate among writers and intellectuals and grammar freaks.

In response to such heated debate, Karl Vonnegut once wrote that semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites” that represent “absolutely nothing.” They should be banned from writing, he said. The New Yorker’s Mary Norris wonders if Vonnegut’s position represents a division between America and its European friends–Americans tend to avoid the semicolon, while those across the Atlantic embrace it.

In my observation, British writers reach for the semicolon much more often than American writers do. It must have something to do with the educational system: the British are given different things to read in school. A brief, unscientific study of the two New Yorker film critics, Anthony Lane (U.K.) and David Denby (U.S.A.), reveals that Lane uses the semicolon almost twice as often as Denby. (I am not counting the use of the semicolon as an extra-strength comma to separate items in a series that already has commas in it.) In three random columns by each critic, Lane uses six semicolons in two columns and four in one; Denby weighs in at four, three, and two. I’m guessing that Lane imbibed the classics; Denby drank Philip Roth.

Even if the semicolon is used less often by American writers, the question still stands: how does one, American or British, properly use it?

Ben Dolnick, at The Times, says that semicolons capture the fluidity of thoughts:

Their textbook function — to separate parts of a sentence “that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences” — has come to seem like a dryly beautiful little piece of psychological insight. No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle.

And so, far from being pretentious, semicolons can be positively democratic. To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another? And then (in the case of William James) another? And another? And one more? Which sounds, of course, dreadful, and like just the sort of discourtesy a writer ought strenuously to avoid. But the truth is that there can be something wonderful in being festooned in carefully balanced bags; there’s a kind of exquisite tension, a feeling of delicious responsibility, in being so loaded up that you seem to have half a grocery store suspended from your body.

Even after reading these articles, I still consider the semicolon a difficult, troubling creature; however trying it may be, I want to understand it. I want to love it.


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