Semicolons have feelings too!

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lonely semicolon

“[Colons and semicolons] – well, they are in a different league, my dear! They give such lift! Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may runo ut of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots … you stop. But the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes – that allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop, suspending the laws of gravity – well, they are the colons and semicolons.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

This great quote, worded by the greatest stickler I know, Lynne Truss, rightfully gives the semicolon the long overdue self-worth it deserves. A friend once told me the correct usage of a semicolon is completely unbeknownst to him. The linguist in me gasped in horror and as I was about to search for the nearest dictionary (every linguist’s best friend), I realized that this was no easy task (especially when you’re in line at 11pm waiting for the bloody club to get its power back – ahem). So Mr., here’s a break-down of one of the most underrated punctuation marks around (take notes, there will be a quiz afterwards – I kid you not).

  • Neglection
  • A semicolon is like a car’s blinker – no one uses it even though they know they should. This punctuation mark is even ridiculed at through word puns, as in the following example:

    cartoon

    Even more disheartening is that some of the greatest writers in English literature despised it. According to Truss, James Joyce preferred the colon, P.G. Wodehouse never bothered using it, George Orwell told his editor he wasn’t going to feature the semicolon at all in Coming Up for Air (1939), American writer Donald Barthelme said the semicolon is “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly”, and Fay Weldon said she really doesn’t like semicolons, “which is odd, because I don’t dislike anybody really.” How sad. But before putting the semicolon to RIP-rest, let’s take a look at its childhood history to see if it faced any emotional trauma.

  • History
  • The punctuation mark was first used in 1494 by the Italian printer Aldus Manutius. In Medieval times (and Guilderland, NY perhaps), a symbol similar to that of our semicolon was used in Latin scripts. Greeks, to this day, use semicolons as a question mark (huh;). It was finally introduced into the English language in 1560 and after that, writers such as Shakespeare and Ben Johnson have been using it ever since. Hmm – nothing psychotraumatic to report here. Let’s now get to the meat of the issue – how the heck do you use a semicolon?

  • Use

  • The folks at LeTourneau University have ingeniously devised this schematic description of a colon:

    semicolon diagram

    “A semicolon looks like a period on top of a comma. A semicolon is used to divide up the sentence–to signal the end of one part and the beginning of another part. It’s more than a comma, but less than a period, so it combines the two into a single punctuation mark.”

    Still lost? Well let me try my hand at the following analogy:

    periods indicate clauses and ideas completely independent of one another, like free-flowing cars on the highway.

    commas indicate independent clauses in conjunction with a greater gravity pulling them to each other, like a line of cars in a military
    convoy

    semicolons link independent clauses together bound by a common relationship, like car-hauling trailers (you know, those trucks with thousands of cars in the back, waiting to roll off and hit someone?) carrying BMW cars (and you could say that the relationship they all share is they’re all German-made)

    As the American writer Paul Robinson quotes, “They [semicolons] place two clauses in some kind of relation to one another but relieve the writer of saying exactly what that relation is.”

    Here’s an example of the semicolon in action, in competition with the comma and the colon:

    Tom locked himself in the shed. England lost to Argentina.
    (Two, quite possibly, unrelated sentences and events.)

    Tom locked himself in the shed; England lost to Argentina.
    (Perhaps these events occurred at the same time or perhaps Tom’s in the shed because he can’t bear to watch the match and doesn’t know the result.)

    Tom locked himself in the shed: England lost to Argentina.
    (Tom’s in the shed because England lost to Argentina.)

    In addition, semicolons also act as “super-commas” in lists when commas are already used:

    I’ve lived in Paris, France; Bangkok, Thailand; Beijing, China; and London, England.

    Commas are used here to distinguish countries from its capitals and semicolons to separate the 4 physical locations:

    -Paris, France
    -Bangkok, Thailand
    -Beijing, China
    -London, England

[Dedicated to a former UNO’s waiter]

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1 Comment

Filed under Linguistics

One response to “Semicolons have feelings too!

  1. mikeinboston

    Very informative. I am debating whether to attempt using a semi-colon in my response. If I use it incorrectly, your post will have been for naught; I am unsure of what to do. Well there you go. I suppose it’s time for celebration, or (if it was used incorrectly) heavy crying. Either way, thanks for the information and effort!
    -Mike

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