So I get a text message from a friend saying that Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t like semicolons.
Vonnegut’s latest book, “A Man Without a Country,” is apparently a collection of his articles over the last few years. The man can write (and he can think as well), so it’s probably a pretty good book. But he has some nasty things to say about the venerable semicolon.
“I have never used semicolons. They don’t do anything, don’t suggest anything.”
And, nastier: semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites,” giving no meaning except to show that the author went to college.
No! And again I say no!
Say that you don’t like them if you want. Say that your audience might get sidetracked by seeing one. Say that people don’t understand how they should be used. But it’s outright wrong to say that they carry no meaning. (Vonnegut later backtracked a bit in the very same book, but let’s set that aside so as not to cool my righteous outrage.)
This reminds me of an argument I once had about whether “um” can have meaning. As in the following exchange:
“Hey, do you have the flux capacitor?”
“Um, no, I thought you had it.”
It may not be easy to define, but it carries meaning. Yes, I’m stating that outright and not even bothering to back up my claim. “Um” can convey meaning.
So does “like” (even though parents may hate it) in the following:
“We were going, like, 80 miles an hour when we ploughed into that yak.”
“Like” means that the 80 isn’t an exact indication of our speed. It may not even be close. But we were going pretty fast.
The semicolon carries meaning, and unlike “um,” that meaning is extremely easy to define. The problem is that it’s dropping out of use (especially in the U.S.), so fewer and fewer people are able to extract the meaning.
As top-shelf writers like Vonnegut continue to take arms against the semicolon, they fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less it’s used, the less people will know how to use it, or read it. When people don’t know what it means, then it means nothing.
By God, we’ve got to stop that from happening. Iraq? Abortion? Elections? Pffft. Choose your side on the Great Semicolon Debate. You’re with us or against us.
I’m not the first or best by far to carry the banner for the abused semicolon (for example: Pause Celebre), but I’ll do my bit now, even if Vonnegut thinks I’m pretentious for doing it. (The man has made a career of popping hot air balloons, but this time he’s popped one that should stay afloat.)
How to Use the Semicolon
The semicolon is properly used in only two ways. It’s simple. I assume that even Vonnegut would agree with one of them, so I’ll state that one first.
To connect items in a list when the items themselves have commas:
“The misguided haters of semicolons include Hemingway; my friend, John; E.B. White, a meticulous writer; and Vonnegut, respected, but too egalitarian for his own good.”
Now, I’m not saying that the previous sentence is a work of art. But imagine it with only commas and you can see why we need a semicolon.
Not into the whole “imagination” thing? Here it is:
“The misguided haters of semicolons include Hemingway, my friend, John, E.B. White, a meticulous writer, and Vonnegut, respected, but too egalitarian for his own good.”
Is Hemingway my friend, or is John? Or is it some unnamed friend? Who’s the meticulous writer? (Obviously not the author of that sentence.)
Again, I assume that even the big V would appreciate the need for semicolons in that sentence. Otherwise, he’d have to rewrite the whole thing, and why bother when the semicolon elegantly handles it?
Now on to the more contentious use of the semicolon.
To connect two complete thoughts that are related.
Let’s say you have two things you want to say: “I went” and “I ate.” As a writer, you have to decide whether these things are related, and if they are, how closely. You can link the thoughts together:
1. “I went and I ate”
2. “I went, and I ate.”
Or you can separate them:
3. “I went. I ate.”
Those are all fine. Option one gives us two thoughts as one big thought. They’re sewn together and can’t be separated.
Option two has some wiggle room. They’re linked very closely, but the going and the eating are distinct. They’re two parts of the same body.
Option three separates them completely. Going and eating are not entwined in any way. In fact, maybe you’re answering two unrelated questions.
Each option is available to you. You have your choice.
But what if you want to say that going and eating are linked, but not quite as tightly as in option 2? You want them to share warmth, but not fluids.
Hemingway would choose option 3 and hope that the reader will make the leap to relate them. They’re close to each other in the paragraph, so maybe that’s good enough.
But we don’t have to live with “good enough.” We aren’t forced to choose between implied relativity and complete integration.
We have…the SEMICOLON:
4. “I went; I ate.”
It’s a pause, but not a full stop. It connects the ideas, but doesn’t fuse them. It does better than hope that you grok a relation, but it doesn’t beat the thing on your head.
And it has meaning and value, and shouldn’t be tossed aside to keep the ignorati in their comfort zone.
Without the semicolon, we have writers who contort and strain to link independent ideas. They want one sentence, but can’t think of a decent way to do it:
“The Marshmallow Man fears fire, his flesh being easily roasted.”
Yuck. Let’s reframe it:
“The Marshmallow Man fears fire; his flesh is easily roasted.”
Ah, the power of non-Vonnegut.
But don’t abuse it! Show how two ideas are connected, don’t just declare them with punctuation. It should be no more than a signpost letting readers know that they’re on the right track. If I read your semicolon without understanding why it’s not a period, then something’s gone awry.
And now, an appeal.
Please use the semicolon.
Don’t abuse it by putting it everywhere, ’cause that’ll just add fuel to the haters’ fire. But use it and keep it as an option for future writers.
Don’t let the semicolon go the way of “whom,” a word with meaning but, through dis (and mis) use, is relegated to formal writing and the exceptionally pretentious.
Without your help, future writers will lose a color from their palette. Can you imagine a rainbow without incarnadine? I can, but that’s not the point.