On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

July 10, 2018 | 3 books mentioned 12 7 min read

1.
Kurt Vonnegut’s caution against the use of semicolons is one of the most famous and canonical pieces of writing advice, an admonition that has become, so to speak, one of The Rules. More on these rules later, but first the infamous quote in question: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

To begin with the lowest-hanging fruit here—fruit that is actually scattered rotting on the ground—the “transvestite hermaphrodite” bit has not aged well. The quote also, it seems, may have been taken out of context, as it is followed by several more sentences of puzzlingly offensive facetiousness, discussed here.

That said, I also have no idea what it means. My best guess is that he means semicolons perform no function that could not be performed by other punctuation, namely commas and periods. This obviously isn’t true—semicolons, like most punctuation, increase the range of tone and inflection at a writer’s disposal. Inasmuch as it’s strictly true that you can make do with commas, the same argument that could be made of commas themselves in favor of the even unfussier ur-mark, the period. But that is a bleak thought experiment unless you are such a fan of Ray Carver that you would like everyone to write like him.

Finally, regarding the college part, two things: First, semicolon usage seems like an exceedingly low bar to set for pretentiousness. What else might have demonstrated elitism in Vonnegut’s mind? Wearing slacks? Eating fish? Second, in an era of illiterate racist YouTube comments, to worry about semicolons seeming overly sophisticated would be splitting a hair that no longer exists.

But however serious Vonnegut was being, the idea that semicolons should be avoided has been fully absorbed into popular writing culture. It is an idea pervasive enough that I have had students in my writing classes ask about it: How do I feel about semicolons? They’d heard somewhere (as an aside, the paradoxical mark of any maxim’s influence and reach is anonymity, the loss of the original source) that they shouldn’t use them. To paraphrase Edwin Starr, semicolons—and rules about semicolons—what are they good for?

As we know, semicolons connect two independent clauses without a conjunction. I personally tend to use em dashes in many of these spots, but only when there is some degree of causality, with the clause after the em typically elaborating in some way on the clause before it, idiosyncratic wonkery I discussed in this essay. Semicolons are useful when two thoughts are related, independent yet interdependent, and more or less equally weighted. They could exist as discrete sentences, and yet something would be lost if they were, an important cognitive rhythm. Consider this example by William James:

I sit at the table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about.

The semicolon is crucial here in getting the thought across. Prose of the highest order is mimetic, emulating the narrator or main character’s speech and thought patterns. The semicolon conveys James’s mild bewilderment at the interconnection of act (eating the raisins) and thought (awareness he may eat the raisins) with a delicacy that would be lost with a period, and even a comma—a comma would create a deceptively smooth cognitive flow, and we would lose the arresting pause in which we can imagine James realizing he is eating, and realizing that somehow an awareness of this undergirds the act.

An em dash might be used—it would convey the right pause—but again, ems convey a bit of causality that would be almost antithetical to the sentence’s meaning. The perception follows temporally, but not logically. In fact, James is saying he doesn’t quite understand how these two modes of awareness coexist.

coverOr consider Jane Austen’s lavish use of the semicolon in this, the magnificent opening sentence of Persuasion:

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Periods could be ably used here, but they would not quite capture the drone of Elliot’s stultifying vanity. Again, form follows function, and the function here is to characterize the arrogantly dull mental landscape of a man who finds comprehensive literary solace in the baronetage. More than that, the semicolons also suggest the comic agony of being trapped in a room with him—they model the experience of listening to a self-regarding monologue that never quite ends. We hardly need to hear him speak to imagine his pompous tone when he does.

coverThe semicolon’s high water usage mark, as shown here, was the mid-18th to mid-/late 19th centuries. This is hardly surprising, given the style of writing during this era: long, elaborately filigreed sentences in a stylistic tradition that runs from Jonathan Swift to the James brothers, a style that can feel needlessly ornate to modern readers. Among other virtues (or demerits, depending on your taste in prose), semicolons are useful for keeping a sentence going. Reflecting on the meaning of whiteness in Moby Dick, Melville keeps the balls in the air for 467 words; coverProust manages 958 in Volume 4 of Remembrance of Things Past during an extended, controversial rumination on homosexuality and Judaism. There is a dual effect in these examples and others like them of obscuring meaning in the process of accreting it, simultaneously characterizing and satirizing the boundaries of human knowledge—a sensible formal tactic during an era when the boundaries of human knowledge were expanding like a child’s balloon.

Stylistically, the latter half of the 20th century (and the 21st) has seen a general shift toward shorter sentences. This seems understandable on two fronts. First—and this is total conjecture—MFA writing programs came to the cultural fore in the 1970s and over the last few decades have exerted an increasing influence on literary culture. I am far from an MFA hater, but the workshop method does often tend to privilege an economy of storytelling and prose, and whether the relationship is causal or merely correlational, over the last few decades a smooth, professionalized, and unextravagant style has been elevated to a kind of unconscious ideal. This style is reflexively praised by critics: “taut, spare prose” is practically a cliche unto itself. Additionally, personal communication through the 20th century to today has been marked by increasing brevity. Emails supplant letters, texts supplant emails, and emojis supplant texts. It stands to reason that literary writing style and the grammar it favors would, to a degree, reflect modes of popular, nonliterary writing.

Beyond grammatical writing trends, though, semicolons are a tool often used, as exemplified in the Austen and James examples, to capture irony and very subtle shades of narrative meaning and intent. It might be argued that as our culture has become somewhat less interested in the deep excavations of personality found in psychological realism—and the delicate irony it requires—the semicolon has become less useful. Another interesting (though possibly meaningless) chart from Vox displays the trend via some famous authors. As fiction has moved from fine-grained realism into postmodern satire and memoir, has the need for this kind of fine-grained linguistic tool diminished in tandem?

Maybe. In any case, I have an affection for the semi, in all its slightly outmoded glory. The orthographical literalism of having a period on top of a comma is, in itself, charming. It is the penny-farthing of punctuation—a goofy antique that still works, still conveys.

2.
A larger question Vonnegut’s anti-semicolonism brings up might be: Do we need rules, or Rules, at all? We seem to need grammatical rules, although what seem to be elemental grammatical rules are likely Vonnegutian in provenance and more mutable than they seem. For instance, as gender norms have become more nuanced, people—myself included—have relaxed on the subject of the indeterminately sexed “they” as a singular pronoun. Likewise, the rule I learned in elementary school about not ending sentences with prepositions. Turns out there’s no special reason for this, and rigid adherence to the rule gives you a limited palette to work with (not a palette with which to work).

We know, on some level, that writing rules are there to be broken at our pleasure, to be used in the service of writing effectively, and yet writing is such a difficult task that we instinctively hew to any advice that sounds authoritative, cling to it like shipwrecked sailors on pieces of rotten driftwood. Some other famous saws that come to mind:

Henry James: “Tell a dream, lose a reader.”

Elmore Leonard: “Never open a book with weather.”

John Steinbeck: “If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.”

Annie Dillard: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place.”

Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

And more Kurt Vonnegut: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”; “Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”; “Start as close to the end as possible.”

In the end, of course, writing is a solitary pursuit, and for both good and ill no one is looking over your shoulder. As I tell my students, the only real writing rule is essentially Aleister Crowley’s Godelian-paradoxical “Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the law.” Or alternately, abide by the words of Eudora Welty: “One can no more say, ‘To write stay home,’ than one can say, ‘To write leave home.’ It is the writing that makes its own rules and conditions for each person.”

Image: Flickr/DaveBleasdale

is a writer and teacher living in Carrboro, NC.  The paperback edition of his first novel, The Grand Tour, is now available on Anchor Books.  His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, Glimmer Train, and many other places.  His podcast, Fan's Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball.  Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

12 comments:

  1. As a fan of never allowing dogma to limit one’s options, I applaud this piece as a well-reasoned defense of the recently maligned semi. It is as profound a thing to feel the rhythm of a sentence as it is to appreciate its static content; in equal measure is it not ironic that Vonnegut’s best work was an elaboration on the experience of time itself?
    As to the that tired mid-century emphasis on the compactness of prose as the measure of its potency, it is but one more weathered element of dogma. Vonnegut, as a writer, was okay, but he is still in the middling class, keeping company with Hemingway I suppose. The 20th Century probably saw only one truly great “compact” writer in English: Fitzgerald. I’ll take him and James (semicolons and all) any day over Vonnegut as authorities on writing style.

  2. As a translator of French into English and one time teacher of English as a foreign language in France, I have often encountered (in written language) “en effet”, for which the standard English equivalent, “indeed” is seldom appropriate. The translation that invariably works is the semi-colon, which admirably does the linking/justifying job of “en effet”. But my students were always loath to accept a punctuation mark as a translation of a word!

  3. See, too, Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast on his Revisionist History series, Third Season, for a segment on a very famous semicolon.

  4. “All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    Oh yeah, Mr. Vonnegut? I learned how to use semicolons in seventh grade.

    (To this day, I bless that English teacher.)

    Adam O’Fallon Price perfectly describes the effect of the semicolons in the Austen excerpt. He’s right about the effect of the semicolon versus the comma in the James excerpt as well — but, at least according the rules of grammar I learned, that sentence as James wrote it requires a comma. It could have the semicolon without the “but” or the comma with the “but,” but the “but” (ahem) changes that second clause from independent to dependent, and thus ineligible for a semicolon..

  5. Let’s not forget using semicolons in complex items in a series. See MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail for an excellent example.

  6. Better the semi-colon than the run-on sentences too often seen when a comma is used in place of (at least) a semi-colon or (usually better) a period.

  7. I avoided semi-colons for technical reasons when I was writing newspaper ads for Sears refrigerators back in the day; the dots-per-inch were so low in newspapers reprinting these ads that semi-colons came out as commas anyway. I do use semi-colons in real writing.

  8. Are you particular about the nature of the employment?’
    ‘Not as long as it’s legitimate.’
    The voice grew icicles. ‘I should not have called you, if it were not.’
    A Harvard boy. Nice use of the subjunctive mood.

    Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely

  9. Joe,

    One of the very best uses of the semi, and an essay that should be taught in every freshman writing class.

  10. > To begin with the lowest-hanging fruit here—fruit that is actually scattered rotting on the ground—the “transvestite hermaphrodite” bit has not aged well.

    And even less so, based on whether it agrees with the “moral standards” and “ideologies” of the day – such as the PC safe-space mentality?

    It’s not some 2018 hack that will judge whether Vonnegut’s writing has “aged well”.

    It’s Vonnegut’s writing instead that judges 2018 and 2118 and hacks.

    Vonnegut didn’t care for the “moral standards” of HIS day, what makes you think he’d care for 2018’s?

    > That said, I also have no idea what it means.

    Obviously that the semicolon serves no purpose.

    A transvestite is someone who dresses as the other sex. A hermaphrodite is a creature that is of both sexes. So there’s no reason or purpose for a hermaphrodite to be a transvestite.

  11. If your next sentence begins with ‘and’ or ‘but’, the previous should end with a semi-colon rather than a period.

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