Scared by semicolons

Scared by semicolons

‘More generally, your footnotes are far too long and, goodness me, you don’t know how to use a semicolon, do you?’ These almost throwaway words were addressed to me in the year 2000, during my PhD oral exam.

Reader, I did not use a semicolon again until 2014. As Denise Cowle so rightly says in her YouTube explainer ‘How to use a semicolon’ (which I could have done with 20 years ago), often people are either scared of semicolons so they avoid them altogether, or they scatter them about without understanding their correct placement. Before my examiner’s comment I had been the second type of person; afterwards, I became the first.

In the semi wilderness

But I went on to work in marketing, and who needs the semicolon when you’re producing copy for leaflets and posters? I eschewed it. (I’ve always wanted to write that sentence.) I used full points. I used en dashes – a lot. As David Marsh states in For Who the Bell Tolls (Guardian Books 2013), ‘You can lead a full and happy life without bothering with semicolons.’

According to Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves (Profile 2003), which came out early in my semicolon drought, I was not alone. ‘The semicolon has currently fallen out of fashion with newspapers’, Truss lamented. On the other hand, when I read this book in the mid-noughties it almost tempted me back to the semicolon, as Truss is a big fan. But then she described the siren call of the en dash:

The dash is less formal than the semicolon, which makes it more attractive; it enhances conversational tone; and ... it is capable of quite subtle effects. The main reason people use it, however, is that they know you can’t use it wrongly – which, for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue. (Truss’s emphasis)

Yes, that’s exactly what I need, I thought – something foolproof. So I carried on with my incomplete punctuation toolkit.

Facing my fears

However, the semicolon was gaining on me. In 2014 I finally encountered it, again in the academic world but now as an editor. There was no escape this time so I forced myself to look it squarely in the eye.

And, well, it wasn’t too frightening, actually. You will all know how to use a semicolon, of course, but for completeness here is what I learned:

  • It is used to join two independent but related clauses. This means that you could put a full stop in place of the semicolon and the text would still make sense as two sentences (although their connection would be less obvious).

So far, so good.

  • It is also used to separate items in a list, if clarity is needed.

A good example of this can be found in Dreyer’s English (US version, Random House 2019):

Lucy’s favorite novels are Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; Farewell, My Lovely; and One Time, One Place.

Can you imagine the chaos if those semicolons were changed to commas? Benjamin Dreyer can: look at p. 43 (and all the other pages too, while you’re there – the book is an utter treat).

There is more, such as that the semicolon replaces the ‘comma and “and”’ construction in the connection of the two clauses, or that, according to R.L. Trask in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation (1997), ‘certain connecting words do require a semicolon. Chief among these are however, therefore, hence, thus, consequently, nevertheless and meanwhile’, but really these points can be filed under the ‘two independent but related clauses’ rule.

Victorian semi

I recently returned to my thesis to diagnose its semicolon issue. Here’s a typical example:

By 1936, Freud’s surprised discovery of his lack of priority had explicitly become what was only implied in 1914; a result of his heroic, stoic years battling alone.

This could go either way. I would now replace the semicolon with a colon. The examiner (probably by then frazzled by my profligate semicolon use) actually marked it up to be replaced by a comma. A full stop? Impossible. So my problem here was the lack of two independent clauses.

Another problem was that I sometimes joined two unrelated (though independent) clauses with a semicolon. Lynne Truss quotes Paul Robinson (I don’t think it’s the one from Neighbours) who says that those who overuse semicolons ‘place two clauses in some kind of relation to one another but relieve the writer of saying exactly what that relation is’ (Truss’s emphasis). This reveals quite a lot about my wishful thinking as a scholar. But anyway, where the connection in meaning between the clauses I forced together was weak I should have used a full stop.

What caused this confusion in the first place? Well, don’t laugh, but my money’s on the Victorians. Trask cites the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities as a good example of semicolon use:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

It is excellent. However, I haven’t come across a version of the book that contains a semicolon here (it’s actually a comma, and these words are at the beginning of a long list that might have benefited from the odd semicolon). Meanwhile, Dickens’s chum Wilkie Collins merrily sprinkled semicolons around as if they were going out of fashion – which perhaps they were, very gradually. As Collins’s novels comprised about half of the fiction my thesis examined, I may have picked up a habit. From a writer born in 1824. Oh yes, it was the wildest of times.

First published as an article in the May/June 2019 issue of Editing Matters, the magazine of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

Credit: Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

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