A Lesson in Semicolons
I never knew how much I liked semicolons until I met Dr. Prior, my 18th-century English Literature professor. To be able to use a semicolon in a paper for her class, you needed to pass her semicolon test. If you did, she would award you a License to Use a Semicolon, and only then would you be able to join together two independent clauses without a conjunction.
I’m being serious; really.
One day she decided to explain the rationale behind the licensing exam.
“Guys, I’m a big fan of the semicolon,” she said. “I want to protect its reputation, and to make sure it’s being properly used.”
Because I was eighteen, and because I wanted to have A Thing, I thought I would make Her Thing My Thing; so I decided then and there that I, too, would be a passionate crusader for the semicolon, and would stop at nothing to remain loyal to its cause.
As Lynne Truss puts it, semicolons are “dangerously habit-forming.” I’m not sure whether the emphasis should be that they’re dangerous or that they’re addictive; but I’m certain that my semicoloned writing at least makes the case for one of them.
Kurt Vonnegut would probably hate my writing. He calls semicolons “transvestite hermaphrodites,” good for nothing more than to “show you’ve been to college.”
Before I go on, I’d like to point out that my obsession with semicolons should not be seen as a romantic obsession with intersexed crossdressers. I only know a few trannies, and I don’t know any hermaphrodites — well, I don’t know that I know any. Which is certainly an interesting thing to think about.
And now we’re off topic; back to semicolons.
Although I plan on remaining a semicolon enthusiastist, I think it’s worth noting that Kurt might have been onto something with his hermaphrodite comment.
Semicolons, like transvestites, betray boundaries. Both unfix the rigid logic of either/or: the first in terms of syntax, the second in terms of sexuality.
According to my pal Bronson Page, semicolons are a little rambunctious. I’m talking about this; and now I’m talking about something only tangentially related; and now — what’s this? — a third remark about nothing in particular that I insist on placing before the full stop; not to mention, that was an em dash!
Semicolons explore places of undecidability. They ignore transitions and hierarchy. They betray the boundaries of two complete ideas by joining them within the same sentence.
Here’s an example:
Look at that girl; at least, I think he’s a girl.
This concludes today’s grammar lesson.
*Sections of this essay have been reworked from a previous blogpost.