A hymn to semi-colons

A hymn to semi-colons

Go on. Try it just once

The world is not binary. Neither is punctuation. Yes, we are all told that only two forms of sentence-break exist. Those are the full stop and the comma. The full stop is a big pause. Ahhh. The comma is a shorter pause. Ah.

In truth, that is not the case. There is also the semi-colon. A medium-sized pause between two elements. And if you really care about pacing your writing it matters. The semi-colon helps with flow, articulation and style. It is fluid. Ahh.

Please consider those last three sentences again:

The semi-colon helps with flow, articulation and style. It is fluid.


And with a semi-colon drawing the first two together:

The semi-colon helps with flow, articulation and style; it is fluid.


See how a little punctuation mark produces elegance and harmony.

My old grammar school taught us that semi-colons are replacements for conjunctions. Consider the following:

The cat ate fish and chips but it was occasionally partial to vole.

Can thus become this:

The cat ate fish and chips; it was occasionally partial to vole.

That’s the modern use, but if you go back to Georgian writing you’ll see the little semi used in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways.

Laurence Stern’s masterful Tristram Shandy (1759) uses at least forms nine of punctuation – comma, colon, semi-colon, full stop, en and em dash, and pairings therein. Marvel at this:

There is not a town in all France, which in my opinion, looks better in the map, than MONTREUIL; ---- I own, it does not look so well in the book of post roads; but when you come to see it -- to be sure it looks most pitifully.

There is one thing however in it at present very handsome; and that is the inn-keeper's daughter: She has been eighteen months at Amiens, and six at Paris, in going through her classes; so knits, and sews, and dances, and does the little coquetries very well. ----

It’s bonkers, but enhances the digressionary, rambling and appallingly sexist nature of the narrative. The Bible is full of semi-colons, too.

Please also bear in mind that the emoticon would be nowhere without the semi-colon; irony would be impossible without the little closed eyelid.

Now all this talk of different ways with punctuation may alarm some. Those used to punctuation being just two things may balk at this rainbow of little marks.

They may feel it is not natural and not for them; they may even fear their parents will be disappointed in them.

I can only say: relax; enjoy it. You really haven’t lived – you haven’t written – until you’ve tried a semi-colon. Hell, if the mood suits, you may even consider a semi-colon and a dash together.

PS: the dog doesn't have an eye injury - it's just very good at winking.

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