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Issue 43: a pause; the semi-colon
By the time you read this, I’ll be on holiday. While I take a little break from regular life (and from my regular newsletter stories), I’m sharing some of my favourite takes on the semi-colon.
The semi-colon is a contentious character. Some people swear by it; others think it’s unnecessary.
I am a fan.
Technically, a semi-colon is used to link two independent clauses that are closely related in thought.
More simply, it indicates a pause that is slightly longer than a comma, but slightly shorter than a full stop.
I am a writer and editor, but I’m not great at remembering all the technical rules that we were taught in school.
I feel this comment (at 22:34) from’s interview in ’ ‘The Active Voice’ newsletter/podcast:
"I was very resistant to learning mechanics – grammar, sentence structure, all the things that we had to do. My mind could not grasp all of that and it all seemed – spelling – all these things that I made mistakes on in my papers or stories we had to write for school… I would always get a great mark in imagination and a fair mark in execution. And to this day – I'm much better – but I have to sometimes go to a dictionary or go to a thesaurus or just read other people's sentences to see: how do you use a semi-colon, because I can't quite... [...] I'm not a prodigy – I've known them – but I have a strong will and I am a hard worker and I've a good imagination. It's taken me years and years and years of daily practice to get to a point where I am now, where I feel I'm happy with my writing."
As Smith does, I go by my experiences of reading and my practice of writing to determine when to use punctuation like a semi-colon. If it feels right to me, I’ll use it.
And I guess it’s that ‘gut feeling’ approach which means I am drawn to people’s writing about the divisive semi-colon, particularly when it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
So, in a pause (one metaphorically somewhere between a comma and a full stop) from regular newslettering, I present some of my favourite passages about semi-colons.
From The New Yorker's 'Semicolons; So Tricky' by Mary Norris:
'She looked at me; I was lost for words.'
“[The semi-colon] seems to have a vestigial interrogative quality to it, a cue to the reader that the writer is not finished yet; she is holding her breath. For example, if the sentence — 'She looked at me; I was lost for words.' — occurred as dialogue in a piece that I was copy-editing, I would be tempted to poke in a period and make it into two sentences. In general, people — even people in love — do not speak in flights that demand semicolons. But in this instance I have to admit that without the semicolon something would be lost. With a period, the four words sink at the end: SHE LOOKED at me. The semicolon keeps the words above water: because of that semicolon, something about her look is going to be significant.”
From The Paris Review’s ‘The Birth of the Semicolon’, by Cecilia Watson:
“The [semi-colon of the] Bembo typeface’s […] comma-half is tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb thrown high above it. The semicolon in Poliphilus, relaxed and fuzzy, looks casual in comparison, like a Keith Haring character taking a break from buzzing. Garamond’s semicolon is watchful, aggressive, and elegant, its lower half a cobra’s head arced back to strike. Jenson’s is a simple shooting star. Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party. Gill Sans MT’s semicolon has perfect posture, while Didot’s puffs its chest out pridefully.”
From The New York Times’ ‘Semicolons: A Love Story’ by Ben Dolnick:
"Kurt Vonnegut’s dismissal of semicolons ['All they do is show you’ve been to college'] struck me as more than a mere matter of style. This was, like his refusal to describe his war experience in heroic terms, a demonstration of virtue. To abjure semicolons was to declare oneself pure of heart, steely-eyed, sadly disillusioned. [...]
"The semicolon sat there in my literary utensil drawer like a cherry pitter, theoretically functional, but fussy and unloved and probably destined for the yard-sale table.
"So it’s been with considerable surprise, these past few years, that I’ve found myself becoming something of a cherry-pitting maniac. This may just, as Vonnegut says, reflect the fact that I’ve now been to college, though honestly I can’t remember anyone’s expressing a single semicolon-related sentiment while I was there. Regardless, I’ve come to love the awkward things, and to depend on them for easing me through a complex thought."
From The New York Times Magazine’s ‘The Case For Semicolons’ by Lauren Oyler:
“My real indulgence is punctuation, which, despite its unflagging service to the essential project of communication, is often subject to pointless regimes of austerity. The saddest, most unfairly represented victim is the semicolon. I try to eat one after every meal.
“I don’t remember when I first learned about semicolons, nor do I have a mental list of remarkable semicolons in literature. I don’t want to have to treasure them, though the typical advice for writers of all levels is to use them sparingly, as if there’s a limited supply. This only breeds fear, which in turn breeds stigma: Semicolons are ugly, pretentious and unnecessary; they immaturely try to have it both ways. There are so many things to fear in life, but punctuation is not one of them. That semicolons, unlike most other punctuation marks, are fully optional and relatively unusual lends them power; when you use one, you are doing something purposefully, by choice, at a time when motivations are vague and intentions often denied. And there are very few opportunities in life to have it both ways; semicolons are the rare instance in which you can; there is absolutely no downside.”
From The Atlantic’s ‘The Imagined Lives of Punctuation Marks’ by Jen Doll:
“The Semi-Colon. This unique breed comes around only once in a while, and when she does, she expects to be taken care of. She travels with an entourage. Semi-Colon has an eclectic though indisputably stylish sense of fashion, and when she's not working (she doesn't get out of bed for less than $10,000, and, yes, her legs are insured), she spends her time lolling about on a divan and eating bon bons, then whitening her teeth. But she, like the prototypical French woman, has no trouble maintaining the perfect weight; she'll always have those womanly curves.”
Theodor Adorno: "Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste."