Notes on the Semicolon

“If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.”

—William James, Letter to Sarah Whitman

In our last class session we were talking about the anxiety that accompanies the use of punctuation. Does a comma go here? Should I include a comma to separate the second and third item in a series? And so on. I also pointed out the vehement positions people take when it comes to punctuation. That an occasional piece of writing on a comma generates over three hundred comments  says something about our relationship to marks on a page.

But what about the semicolon? Why does this mark of punctuation generate so much turbulence? Noah Lukeman suggests that because semicolons are never necessary there will always be a link between its use and whether or not it needed to be used.

images-2Here is a classic statement (in a classic text on style) about the proper use of the semicolon that appears straightforward: “If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence,” say William Strunk and E. B. White, “the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon” (The Elements of Style 5-6). But then, let’s say, you start reading one of my favorite writers, the philosopher and psychologist William James. Here are a couple of examples from James in his chapter “Will” near the end of his The Principles of Psychology. James is making the case (following Carl Lange) that emotion follows, rather than causes, its bodily expression:

Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike.

I sit at 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.

One can hear in these examples the “aught of good,” as James puts it, “the result of ceaseless toil.” His style is quite distinctive, actually, and readers of James are grateful for his willingness to “torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.” Or, let’s say I pick up The Varieties of Religious Experience and read:

Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.

 Or have a look at another example, this one from The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy,

Science, like life, feeds on its own decay. New facts burst old rules; then newly divined conceptions bind old and new together into a reconciling law.

Or, finally, a series in a passage from James’ essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”:

A great nation is not saved by wars, it is saved by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans and empty quacks.

One conclusion to draw from this series of examples is that the use of the semicolon is, alas for some of us, a situational decision.

Looking for a bit more uncertainty to cultivate your punctuation anxiety? Consider Kurt imagesVonnegut’s often-quoted quip about the semicolon in A Man Without a Country (2007). “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” These lines from Vonnegut are quoted by Ben Dolinck in his 2012 Times Opinionator Blog post, “Semicolons: a Love Story.” Of course accomplished writers use semi-colons—in fact, in addition to William James, none other than E. B. White uses them beautifully in his essays, as Mary Norris notes in her  “Semicolons; So Tricky” in the New Yorker.

As with most things linguistic, and again more’s the pity, rules for usage are at once invariant and variant. You can stick with Strunk and White. Or you can read and pay attention to how writers actually use semicolons. You might also want to have a look at Matthew Inman’s “How to Use a Semicolon: The Most Feared Punctuation on Earth” on the Oatmeal Blog.