Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Embracing the Semicolon, Sort of

Back in February Ms. Kelly Franklin provided a fine post titled "Semicolons--Which Side Are You On?"

To follow up on her post about this misunderstood and often abused punctuation mark, I thought I'd pass along yesterday's Opinionator column in the New York Times by Ben Dolnick. Thanks to EIU Professor Emerita Linda Coleman for passing along this column.

In "Semicolons: A Love Story," Dolnick recounts his intellectual journey of finally embracing the semicolon. Because of his esteem for both Vonnegut (who Kelly references in her post) and Hemingway, for a long time he didn't use the punctuation mark.

But as he relates in the piece, "once I’d seen him [William James] using semicolons this way, their pleasing possibilities became irresistible. I’d been finding myself increasingly flummoxed by the difficulty of capturing even a rough approximation of thought on the page, and it seemed absurd to leave such a handy tool unused out of obscure loyalty."

I agree with Kelly's opinion that "one should use semicolons sparingly." However, Dolnick makes a good case for why and how a writer should use them. While Dolnick seems to dismiss the textbook definition of a semicolon functioning to create "a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences," the diction I'm focusing on is "too closely connected."

As a writing teacher, I'm fine with semicolons as long as writers use them purposefully; too often I see semicolons connecting sentences that have no reason to be so closely connected.

I'm a fan of using semicolons to connect two interrelated sentences that have relatively balanced clauses, such as the following quotations taken from one of my commonplace books:
  • "In Iraq, the luck get Kevlar; the rest get prayer beads." ~Naomi Klein, "Disaster Capitalism: The New Economy of Catastrophe"
  • "No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately." ~Michel de Montaigne
  • We need to rediscover and celebrate our place here; there is nowhere else for us to live." ~David Suzuki and Amanda McConnell, The Sacred Balance
  • "At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide." ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • "When I call to my my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the thing children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living." ~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
  • "To live by the internal-combustion engine is to live on top of fire; a cyclone of explosions carries us along." ~Ian Frazier, "Route 3"
  • "Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed into selfishness." ~Alexis de Tocqueville

For me, Ms. Franklin's advice about using semicolons sparingly is warranted, and writers need to keep in mind why they're using them -- not just inserting them into their sentences willy nilly.

No comments:

Post a Comment