“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned,” Joan Didion famously commented in “Why I Write,” her 1976 essay in The New York Times Magazine. “All I know about grammar,” she went on to say, “is its infinite power.”
How very true, these words—at least they ring so for me. Ever since I was old enough to grasp a crayon, I have dabbled creatively in one or another form of writing; yet to this day, I cannot distinguish a predicate from a participle, nor would I be able to finger a gerund in a police lineup. Sometimes I wish I’d have paid better attention in my English classes, but that is not the way things played out. Conjunctions are somewhat more familiar, but only because I tuned in to “Schoolhouse Rock!” every Saturday morning from 1973 until cartoons were no longer cool to watch. Their function, and that confounded song too, are forever seared upon my memory.
I do know about punctuation, however, at least enough to consciously employ it as part of my writing strategy. And like the effect grammar had on Didion, I have similarly come to respect punctuation’s determinative role in sentence-building. I have my favorites, of course—the dash being one of them, as you have likely noticed. But over the years, and through successive bouts of trial and error, I’ve also grown fond of that enigmatic underdog, the semicolon.
We don’t encounter the semicolon all that often in creative prose. Its most comfortable habitat seems to be the tweedy realm of academic writing. It is an eye-catching mark to be sure, conspicuous in a manner similar to parentheses; and this, in part, might account for its scarcity. I once read a book by the British historian, Edward Hallett Carr, in which he admonished young scholars against using parentheses on the grounds that they are an “affront to the eye.” Perhaps some aesthetically-minded creative writers—and, really, who among us are not?—might feel a similar aversion to the semicolon. Admittedly, when juxtaposed with the more graceful comma or authoritative dash, semicolons do appear as clunky, sufficiently so that it might be argued they diminish the “curb appeal” of a sentence and ought to be avoided.
Then too there are creative writers who are either unaware of the formal rules of punctuation, or are cognizant but ignore them with the disdain of an iconoclast. (Both, incidentally, are métier-appropriate behaviors.) Of those in the first group, it might be said that unfamiliarity breeds trepidation. Semicolons are mysterious, and can be viewed as unapproachable. We may not quite know how to act in their presence. They’re rather like the oddball at a cocktail party, or the conventional stiff at work whose wife has just run away with a carnival sword-swallower. In our heart of hearts we might want to engage with them. But in the end we give it a pass, the potential downside being too great.
The second group—the regulation benders—holds that rules are meant to be disregarded if they prove to be inconvenient or, should they be so determined, outright silly. But we are all guilty of this transgression to some degree. Most of us, for example, regularly craft sentences out of dependent clauses, or even a single word, in order to make a dramatic or stylistic impact. Right? Yep. Happens all the time. Yet unlike sentence fragments, which most people now accept in spite of the proscription against them, the use of a semicolon is straight-forward and explicitly rule-bound. You either employ one or you don’t, and there is always a solid reason behind your decision. This fact alone can be enough for committed rebels to leave them out of their writing.
And now that I’ve broached the topic, what are these rules, anyway? Luckily, my copy of The St. Martin’s Handbook is within reach, and it states that semicolons are used for two primary reasons: “to link independent clauses and to separate items in a series.”
I can hear the rebels protesting already: “But the same can be done with a comma.”
Yes, that is true, but only up to a point.
While commas can in fact separate items in a series, exceptions occur when the list of series items—and thus the sentence containing them—is “long and complex,” or when one or more of the items take the form of a clause that includes phrases or individual words which are themselves separated by commas. In each of these cases, we separate the series items with semicolons. To illustrate this type of construction, I cull a sentence from Ann Patchett’s book, Bel Canto:
Without taking a single stitch he saw how the whole thing would unravel: there would be an infection, certainly; they would not bring in the necessary antibiotics; later the wound would have to be opened, drained, resewn.
Likewise, commas are also capable of facilitating the joining of independent clauses, but only if they are immediately followed by a coordinating conjunction (i.e., and, but, for, nor, or, yet). This construction, you may recall, is known as a compound sentence. Once again, I draw an example from Patchett:
The blood no longer pulsed but it continued to seep, and Messner stopped to blot it away with a napkin.
If the sentence were to be revised by replacing the comma with a semicolon, the coordinating conjunction in most cases would be removed, and the sentence would then read:
The blood no longer pulsed but it continued to seep; Messner stopped to blot it away with a napkin.
Both constructions are correct in terms of usage, but notice how differently they sound when read aloud, with special attention paid to the functional effect of punctuation. Time in Patchett’s original sentence—the one with the comma and coordinating conjunction, “and”—seems to flow more quickly, seamlessly: Joachim Messner, while treating the South American official’s facial injury, spies blood seeping from the wound and quickly dabs at it with a napkin before returning to the task at hand.
This, I believe, is the mini-scenario Patchett intended to craft—namely, Messner’s brief performance of an ancillary action in support of a primary one. However, it is interesting to note how the tone and rhythm changed when I took the liberty of recasting the sentence using a semicolon. Suddenly the pause before the action of blotting comes on more abruptly, and feels slightly longer in duration. Thus the blotting itself seems to have taken on a greater importance, as if the work at hand cannot continue until this crucial issue is first addressed.
To further illustrate the semicolon’s potential in generating dramatic tension in a sentence, I turn to a passage from Our Napoleon in Rags, a novel by Kirby Gann, in which the performance of a porn scene between a man and woman is in the process of being spoiled by the jagged and conflicted emotions of the male:
Anantha sensed the problem; she could smell agitation in his sweat; she tasted it on his back.
In his use of semicolons to separate the independent clauses in this sentence, Gann is in essence employing John Gardner’s concept of “psychic distance”—deepening Anantha’s (and also the reader’s) awareness by narrowing the sensory gap between the perceiver and that which is being perceived. Note how the experience grows more intimate with each successive clause. First, Anantha simply intuits Romeo’s agitation. Then her sense of smell is engaged by the fact that he is sweating, and she recognizes it on a more physical level. Finally, she actually tastes the man’s reeling emotions in the sweat that is beading on his back.
For the sake of comparison, let us now recast Gann’s masterful passage differently, in order to show how it might have turned out less effective with an alternate punctuation strategy:
Anantha sensed the problem. She could smell agitation in his sweat. She tasted it on his back.
Anantha sensed the problem, and she could smell agitation in his sweat and also taste it on his back.
Again, these two constructions might conceivably stand as acceptable, but in terms of ratcheting up tension they don’t come close to the original. The first revision example is choppy and reads as amateurish, and the second one packs all the dramatic wallop of a grocery list. When compared with these alternate constructions, it is clear that Gann has nailed psychic distance with the actual sentence he crafted for his novel. And he achieved the effect primarily through the use of semicolons.
So, who in the creative writing world is currently making use of this conspicuous, compelling, yet underutilized punctuation mark? To get an idea, I surveyed ten consecutive pages of thirty English-language literary novels (divided evenly between male and female authors), all of which have been published during the last twenty years. (For a bibliography, please see my companion post in our blog category, “The Book Stack”.)
First, a disclaimer: Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive study by any stretch. Apart from the criteria I imposed, the sample group is representative of nothing more comprehensive than my own bookshelf. Nevertheless, I found the results to be both instructive and, in many cases, surprising.
On the lower left end of the bell curve, we have five authors who used no semicolons at all in their ten pages of prose. Three of these individuals—Kent Haruf, Larry Watson, and Sara Gruen—tend to utilize a spare style to an advantage in their writing, and perhaps this explains the relative lack of not only semicolons, but also dashes or, for that matter, long and complex sentences. The remaining two, Louise Erdrich and Andrea Levy, did place dashes in several spots where semicolons would normally have been appropriate. But I counted these noted authors among the semicolon shunners in the study, since it appears to have been a stylistic decision on their parts to avoid using them.
Eight of the novelists used exactly one semicolon in their ten-page sections, which I interpret as significant enough to highlight a few of them as examples. I might be wrong, but I’m assuming that there was a conscious reason to have crafted them using this punctuation mark and sentence construction over an alternate possibility. In any event, they are each well-authored passages and worthy of note.
From John Dufresne’s Louisiana Power and Light:
If this were a dream, he’d wake up now, frantic; he’d see Earlene’s barley-colored hair inches from his face.
Mindy Friddle’s The Garden Angel:
Like most of our yard’s ornamental flora, the roses had been put in the earth to mark some milestone of our family: a wedding or birth, perhaps; more likely a death.
Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin:
A few cars had stopped in the middle of the road and the newspaper truck had come to a sideways halt, but it wasn’t one of those enormous wrecks that you sometimes hear about in rock songs, all blood and fracture and American highway; rather, it was calm with only small sprinklings of jeweled glass across the lanes, a few bundles of newspapers in a havoc on the ground, distant from the body of the young girl, who was expressing herself in a patch of blooming blood.
Further upward, along the crest of the bell, sit thirteen authors who included from two to seven semicolons as punctuation—whether in series or to separate independent clauses. Of this number, eight novelists used from two to four; the remaining six employed from five to seven. This could be seen as our average-use group.
Finally, descending the right-hand slope we find the four authors who employed more semicolons than the rest. For some reason, I expected British writers to lead this group, as my intuition pictures wordy Brits dropping liberal doses into their elegant sentences. For example, I had forecasted an impressive showing from Ian McEwan, one of my favorites; but then I was taken aback to discover he’d used only two semicolons in his ten pages. (In his defense and mine, however, I submit that I may have chosen the wrong ten pages.) Alan Hollinghurst, another Brit, favored relatively well with eleven, and thus placed in the prolific grouping. But even his tally was only one semicolon more than American Toni Morrison’s.
And speaking of Americans, I’ll admit I was more than a little amazed to discover that two Yanks assumed the distinction of placing the most semicolons in a ten-page sample. At the very right-hand base of the curve sit Our Napoleon in Rags author Kirby Gann with twenty; and in fist place we have the most prolific user of them all, Pennsylvania born-and-bred novelist Jennifer Haigh, who packed a whopping twenty-two semicolons in the sampled portion her book, Baker Towers. Let the Stars and Stripes wave.
So, what specifically does this essay—and its number-crunching component—suggest, aside from the fact I should probably get out of the house more often? If you were to take two recommendations away from this piece, I wish it would be these: First, as readers, we may want to enhance our understanding of semicolon use by flushing them out from among the volumes on our own shelves, and examine them with a critical eye toward the craft potential they bring to the prose. But more importantly, as writers we ought to take a chance and invite them into our own work, that is if we’re not doing it already.
So, go ahead—cross that metaphorical room and break the ice. Get to know the semicolon better; you might be surprised by the possibilities your new friendship yields. And who knows, maybe that extramarital tryst with the sword-swallower will even wind up in your next story.