The Word

Pause and effect

The quiet generosity of the semicolon

By Jan Freeman
September 14, 2008
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THE SEMICOLON MAY have been scorned by chest-thumping writers like Hemingway and Vonnegut, as I wrote last month, but it still has scores of vocal admirers.

There's Mike Burch, for instance, who e-mailed to say that the semicolon is "alive and well, and living in New Zealand," where discriminating writers use it "when neither the feebleness of a comma nor the brick wall of a colon will serve."

Some readers, however, find the semicolon worrisome, and they asked for a recap of the traditional rules of usage. A timely task, with National Punctuation Day coming up Sept. 24, but it's easier said than done: One book offers three rules, another five, and all, in the end, are forced to admit that some semicolons are simply optional, and could be replaced by commas, or perhaps periods, if their authors wished it so.

Since the Columbia Guide to Standard American English is the most concise - it tames the semicolon in a mere two rules - we'll start there. First, it says, the semi "coordinates (separates yet connects evenhandedly) two independent clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction."

This covers both "I ran to the door; no one was there" (semicolon, no conjunction) and "We were there early; nonetheless, they had already left" (semicolon with a conjunctive adverb; since it isn't a coordinating conjunction, a comma is not enough).

Second, the semicolon clarifies a sentence with other internal punctuation. This could be a simple list - "delegates came from Ada, Ohio; Bellingham, Wash.; and Phoenix, Ariz." Or it could be a longish sentence: "He had a tall, black horse; a wagon, which someone had given him after the battle; and a threadbare, tattered carpetbag."

In an ordinary compound sentence, of course, a comma suffices: "I ran to the door, but no one was there." That doesn't mean, however, that a comma is mandated. A semicolon is allowed; so is a period, making two short sentences.

That's because punctuation serves two sometimes conflicting aspects of prose - in H.W. Fowler's terms, logic and rhetoric. Grammar might require only a comma, but the demands of rhetoric - rhythm, emphasis, formality - may call for something stronger.

Psychology, too, is part of rhetoric, a relationship Lawrence Weinstein explores in his recent book, "Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change." Weinstein treats the semicolon in a chapter titled "Generosity"; he sees the mark as "an unrequired gesture of amplification," a sign that a writer is "ungrudging in providing for the needs of others."

He quotes Lewis Thomas's observation: "The period tells you that . . . now you have to move along. But with the semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer."

A few years ago, I had a real-world encounter with the optional semicolon - and a chance to edit Ralph Waldo Emerson! - when Chris Davis, project coordinator for the rebuilding of the Old North Bridge at Minuteman National Park in Concord, e-mailed to ask about punctuating a quotation to be inscribed on a new granite marker near the bridge.

The quote, from a speech Emerson gave at the centennial observance of the Concord fight in 1875, had been printed with a semicolon in the local paper and in the town's official record of the proceedings: "The thunderbolt falls on an inch of ground; but the light of it fills the horizon." But Davis - not wanting to see an error carved in stone - asked if a comma would be better.

I liked the formality of the semicolon, and the way it echoed biblical lines like the ones from Ecclesiastes (as punctuated in the Authorized Version): "All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full." Or "Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity."

This sense was reinforced when I read more of Emerson's speech, where other semicolons kept this one company: "The British instantly retreated," his paragraph continued. "We had no electric telegraph; but the news of this triumph of the farmers over the King's troops flew through the country, to New York, to Philadelphia, to Kentucky, to the Carolinas, with speed unknown before, and ripened the colonies to inevitable decision."

Emerson's semicolon isn't required, and later versions of the line often use a comma. The Chautauquan, in fact, revised Emerson's lines even more thoroughly and bombastically in 1897: "The thunderbolt falls on an inch of ground but the light of it fills the horizon. The British instantly retreated!"

But I voted for the semicolon, and that's what the marker has. So my recommendation for a National Punctuation Day outing - for semicolon fans within range - is a visit to the Old North Bridge, to honor both Emerson's semicolon and your freedom to use it where less daring punctuators might make do with a modest comma.

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