“[U]se of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid—a separator that’s also a connector—but it’s a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.”
Rightfully, I think, there’s been a reaction to the venerable prescriptive school of grammar and punctuation. The modern tendency is to go instead with current usage. But some people — and Hitchings might be one of them, if I read his attitude to semicolons correctly — go too far with that. Perhaps what he really meant has been corrupted in its editing. I can’t believe that someone with his background and evident writing skills could describe the semicolon as a mere “trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.”
I’m all for minimalism in most spheres of this life; and in no way would I advocate unnecessary and obtrusive punctuation merely on the grounds that I attended Grenville High School, in Quebec, where I was suspended for offenses that modesty forbids I specify. (The year I was in Grade 9, just incidentally, the teachers’ association declared Grenville High the worst school in the entire province and barred Association teachers, i.e. any officially qualified teachers, from teaching there.)
But letting the semicolon go officially extinct would mean competent writers lose a valuable tool for no other reason than pundits yield to current popular taste. The way things are going, we could be left with little more than a few Anglo-Saxon grunts ornamented with full stops, question marks and—for the few writers who still use relatively complex sentences and don’t mind appearing affected—commas. Oh, I forgot!!! And exclamation marks, those handy and hugely popular vehicles of spurious verve and melodrama à la mode. (Doesn’t matter. Whatever. Emoticons are meanwhile threatening to relegate words and punctuation to wherever the dodos have gone.) Mass criteria of the good rool, OK!
I use semicolons sparingly. I’m in no way emotionally attached to them. Used appropriately, however, they make essential contributions to clear prose. Hitchings’ apparent belief that the semicolon is nothing but an affectation among a few ponces is utter rubbish.
Where current usage can be shown to be destructive of effective prose, then it should be resisted. Semicolons rool, OK!
Here are some surplus semicolons I avoided using in the foregoing: ;;;;;;;;;. Help yourself.
Assailed once again by the notion I should instead be working on a novel, I offer a brace of haikus.
Complex items in a list,
As in: “Punctuation clarifies prose by establishing logical relations, e.g. in distinguishing defining from non-defining relative clauses; by reflecting spoken language, with its pauses for breath or dramatic effect, e.g., or by evoking tones of interrogation, surprise, disbelief, and so on; and simply by providing a rest for short-term memory and attention when a sentence starts going stylistically all Hegelian on you.” Try reading that without the semicolons.
Or in this case (I know we could have two sentences instead, but considerations of meaning or rhythm can mean the semi-colon is better): “He went through the manuscript of ‘How You Know When You’ve Finished Revising,’ culling commas where he could; later in the day, he went back and reinstalled most of them. Then he sent it away.”
To stop or only to pause?
Find the middle way.
The Wal-Mart sign (above) is meant to be ironic, isn’t it?