The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
Yonder Stands The Orphan, or; The Discreet Charm of the Semicolon
By Christopher Sloce
Imagine we’re on the Titanic and we have to save punctuation marks. Periods, commas, and question marks are our women and children. Think: who is left? I know one you’re thinking of. The semicolon, mumbling non sequiturs to itself, eyes darting around.
Can you blame the semicolon? Kurt Vonnegut called it a “transvestite hermaphrodite that only proves its user went to college” (which, by the way, yikes). According to Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, someone thanked Umberto Eco for not using one in The Name of the Rose. Cormac McCarthy said, “No semicolons, ever.” A google search brought up some writer, unnamed, saying that they were unnatural in dialogue. The semicolon bears the weight of a thousand derisions and is waiting for yours.
I love semicolons. I think semicolons, commas, and periods are the only punctuations with any proximity to music; funny, considering how people think the comma supersedes the need for the semicolon. Commas are utilitarian, for listing. “Please pick up milk, bread, and mousetraps” or “Send lawyers, guns, and money.” The comma derives its poetry from what is around it, intention. “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son,” shows the comma as authoritarian as Dean Wormer and in James Tate’s “Saint John of the Cross in Prison”: “I said nothing fire, I said nothing/water, I said nothing air” the commas are disaffected but regal. Between great swaths of speech, the comma is a way station and a segue into the next moment. This is what has everyone so twitterpated about the semicolon. It's a tool whose utility and mystery are equal. A symbol that’s magick with a k, that represents unconscious connections.
What a person puts on either side of a semicolon shows their soul. When Tony Soprano had his initial panic attack at his barbecue and realized it was because the ducks left his pool, the sentence would have read: “The ducks left my pool; I had a panic attack.”
To use a lyrics example, let’s take a Notorious B.I.G. line, from “Sky’s the Limit”, a rags to riches anthem a touch more autumnal than “Juicy”. Biggie, on vigs he was owed as a child: “I mean loyalty, n*****s bought me milks at lunch/the milks was chocolate; the cookies buttercrunch.” Now, here’s a test. In the second bar, use every possible conjoining punctuation or word besides a semicolon. “The milks was chocolate and the cookies buttercrunch” has an Old Testament grandiloquence, but this isn’t a sermon. The bar isn’t a contradiction, thus forget “but”. Using a comma to get the “The milks was chocolate, the cookies, buttercrunch,” is an orgy of litanous gobbledegook and a disaster of intention. It sounds like cats screwing. Only the semicolon could communicate the slickness of young Biggie’s ill-gotten gains. It turns the childhood joys of cookies and chocolate milk and turns it as seductive as Henry Hill’s wonder that gangsters were allowed to stay up all night playing cards without anyone calling the cops. The semicolon allows for panache.
I’m not arguing for an abuse that turns the power semicolons hold into a tic. I’m arguing two things. I’m arguing that we don’t throw it into the drunk tank with the true repeat offenders of the written world like adverbs and dialogue tags like “apologized” after someone says, “I’m sorry.” I’m also pleading, more than I am arguing, that you see an entire universe of difference between “He said, ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,’and no one did,” and “He said, ‘Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,’; no one did.” You may need the first, which reads to me as weary. You may need the sly irony of the second one. Count out neither.
Are these high-falutin ravings that just prove I went to college? It’s possible, so allow me to better position myself on my soapbox. There is nothing more boring to me than a writer entrenched in dogma, some set of concrete “always this, never that”. I’m not here for religion, unless I’m reading religious texts. I want information, entertainment, comfort, dazzlement, healing, and titillation. I want The Grand Inquisitor’s mystery, miracle, and authority. A dogma is an argument for form over function. Every article, every short story, novel, and whatever, is its own puzzle-box, its own chess problem. There are rules to abide by on general principal. But the main one is this: subject and story are king and I’ll use dynamite to get to them if I have to. Everything is on the table and refusing to use a semicolon is like a pianist never playing a sharp. And these don’t these fanatical dogmas, like George Smiley noted in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; conceal a secret doubt? A writer doubt themselves? Perish the thought!
My defense rests at this: if you don’t need them, don’t use them, but don’t count that others may. But give it a shot, one of these days. Google instructions. You might learn something, or, God forbid, have some fun.
And at least they aren’t exclamation points.
Visit our shop and subscribe. Sponsor us. Submit and become a contributor. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.