Friday, November 2, 2012

Semicolon: Old-School or Archaic?

I'll admit it; I am fond of the semicolon. Some may accuse me of sounding like an old-school grammarian, but I hold the English language and all the grammatical rules that govern it in high regard. They are the authorial tools that allow me to communicate with accuracy. Thoughts flit through the mind, intangible and abstruse, and capturing their essence is a writer's first challenge. Without proper punctuation, the version of those abstract thoughts that makes it onto paper can be flat, lackluster, and bereft of nuance. When used correctly, the semicolon is vital in establishing balance between two thoughts, defining a relationship, and cuing the reader that attention should be paid to a nuance in the author's message. 

It turns out, not all writers and editors share my enthusiasm for the semicolon. Debate about the relevance of the semicolon in today's contemporary fiction has people passionately divided into two opposing camps. Those who disagree with me believe the semicolon is an archaic mark that looks pretentious and doesn't fit with today's modern writing style. Before I discuss this once highly respected punctuation mark, let's conduct an informal poll to gauge authors' opinions on the following question. (You will be zipped over to the poll page to see results. Please click the 'Back' button below the results on the poll page, to be redirected back here.)

Is the semicolon worth saving? free polls 

The English language in America is changing; there's no doubt about it. Texting on our phones and posting on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have given rise to a new degenerate language which is abrupt, coded, and transparent. Abbreviations pass for words. Capitalization is reserved for denoting shouting. And punctuation is used almost exclusively to decorate with smiley faces. i luv 2 write. imma b published 1 day. OMG FURR REELZ dat b da truf :))

The effects on our culture are unsettling. We're increasingly conditioned for brevity, and our attention spans are shrinking. Some writers and editors maintain that strong book sales result when they cater to these shifts in cultural perceptions. The market is flooded with books stylized by plots with lightning-speed pacing, which depend on stripped down sentences that are punchy, declarative, and void of the artistic flourish of a by-gone era. The popularity of today's bestsellers seems to confirm the belief that readers don't want stories bogged down by long, lush sentences, and this speculation serves to perpetuate the cycle.

However, it's a misconception that semicolons are no longer needed in today's fiction. It is simply untrue.

According to English language punctuation rules, there are three specific situations that necessitate a semicolon, even if you don't "like" them. In each case, use of any other punctuation mark is incorrect, period.

1. Use a semicolon between closely related main clauses not joined by a coordinating conjunction (such as and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet).
         Example: "I never vote for anyone; I always vote against." (W. C. Fields)

2. Use a semicolon between main clauses linked by a conjunctive adverb (such as however and therefore) or a transitional expression (such as in fact or for example).
         Example: "It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets." (Voltaire)

3. Use a semicolon between items in a series when the items themselves contain commas or other marks of punctuation.
         Example: The sites being considered for the new Volkswagen plant are Waterloo, Iowa; Savannah, Georgia; Freestone, Virginia; and Rockville, Oregon.

(Source for numbers 1-3 above.  )

The semicolon is also a tool for crafting strong sentences that convey a relationship between thoughts. In a July 19, 2012 New Yorker article called "Semicolons; So Tricky,"   Mary Norris says this about semicolon usage:

"If the sentence "She looked at me; I was lost for words," occurred as dialogue in a piece that I was copy-editing, I would be tempted to poke in a period and make it into two sentences. In general, people -even people in love- do not speak in flights that demand semicolons. But in this instance I have to admit that without the semicolon something would be lost. With a period, the four words sink at the end: SHE LOOKED at me. The semicolon keeps the words above water: because of that semicolon, something about her look is going to be significant."

Semicolon use may be on the decline in the United States, but it is not destined to become obsolete. The poll you took above was borrowed from Richard Nordquist who polled readers of this article.   As of the writing of this newsletter, the results showing the semicolon IS worth saving are as follows:

Total Votes: 922

Yes. I use semicolons in my own writing: 748 / 81%
Yes, though I don't use semicolons: 41 / 4%
No. Though I still use semicolons, they'll soon be obsolete: 47 / 5%
No, I don't use semicolons: 70 / 7%
What's a semicolon? 15 / 1%

Question: Do you use semicolons in your fiction? Why or why not? And, were you surprised by the poll results?