The Last Word
The art of the semi-colon ; )
The other day my daughter, a senior at Mt. Holyoke College, was complaining that a professor had taken her to task for not using semi-colons, not accused her of using them improperly, but not using them at all. Wow. I was amazed; they’re such useful punctuation marks.
Now, I can’t decline a sentence with any accuracy, but I sure know how to put one together. And, for me, the semi-colon is a nifty tool. I think of the semi-colon as a deep breath. Commas are like kindergarten teachers, lining students up in order, making sure that there’s enough space between them that they don’t punch each other. A semi-colon, on the other hand, is more like a traffic cop; he makes sure a phrase stops before progressing. It takes the place of a conjunction; in today’s world of instant messaging, it is also useful as an emoticon representing a wink. ;)
Wrangling semi-colons didn’t come naturally to me. It’s a hard-won skill. My education in the art of the semi-colon occurred many years ago when I worked for an organization that had a volunteer who decided that this non-profit needed a prospectus. A prospectus tells a complete story about an institution from its origins to the number of employees, square footage, departments; financial standing, income, assets, and on and on. This was hardly creative writing, but a tersely written, deeply informative compilation of information, dependent upon the semi-colon. As defined in Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition, a semi-colon is used to separate the independent clauses of a compound sentence if there are commas within the clauses. We spent hours going over every phrase, sentence, word and fact, chasing after details that changed weekly, like the number of full-time equivalent employees; we were trying to take a snapshot of an organization in flux. He was a wonk, a perfectionist, and taught me how to use a semi-colon. I thought I knew punctuation; however, this guy made it an art. Even with my appetite for editing, I began to dread our sessions.
I don’t know what happened to that prospectus. It’s probably sitting on a shelf somewhere, a piece of ancient history in an organization that has evolved in new directions; a testament to good intentions and superior punctuation.
In writing fiction, I frequently make use of the semi-colon between independent clauses in a sentence if they are not joined by the conjunctions and, but, or, nor, for, yet. It’s that deep breath; a mental pause for effect. Stronger than a comma, weaker than a period. That’s the basic definition of my friend the semi-colon. Unlike writing a prospectus, fiction utilizes the semi-colon in the same way music needs dynamic markings. Here is something important; pay attention. In creative writing, mood is developed with words; however, the reader is given cues to interpretation by means of punctuation – and \I don’t mean the vastly overused exclamation mark! A judiciously placed semi-colon can emphasize a clause without breaking it off into its own sentence, allowing the reader, and the writer, to enjoy the flow of thought.
Every now and then I check the properties of the book I’m working on, that little function where you count words, sentences, and paragraphs to see how far you’ve come. Apparently there is a 78-word sentence in my book; I don’t know where it is, but I can be sure that there’s a semi-colon or two embedded in it.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.