Poor semicolon; Dr. Johnson ushered in the golden age for it, and after that it was all downhill. It’s a very Ciceronian piece of punctuation; a method of concomitance that allows the speaker to continue on without stopping; the perfect punctuation for a speech, or a long digression. There’s no need for conjunctions with Semicolon, but the hoi polloi refuse to understand that; they think that you can just use a comma instead — and in many instances, you can. But using Semicolon is more than just a sign that you went to college. Here’s a grade school maxim: if a period is a red light, then Semicolon is a yellow light, and the comma is a green light.
We love the comma. The comma shares the place of lamentable semicolon, in part because it’s easier. When they see a ; they aren’t really sure what to do. You can use the , for everything nowadays. Watch: I went to the bodega to get some beer, they were out of 40’s. That comma takes the place of Semicolon. Why wouldn’t I use Semicolon ? Oh, but it’s so pretentious. It’s like using the word convalesce, when I could just say healing, or getting better. I want to resurrect it. Semicolon has intrinsic value for linking phrases of differing content, and it isn’t as abrubt as the dash. The dash is effective and is now often the favorite over Semicolon. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dash, but it’s choppy, and Semicolon allows for relative fluidity, even if it does involve a slight pause. The Semicolon; now there’s a piece of punctuation.
Here’s a nice example: “And as it was borne in on him that he would never see her again, that it was all over, that she was irrevocably lost, he felt his whole being torn apart; his tears, which had been gathering all day, overflowed.” Here, the commas serve as modifying clauses. Semicolon signals a break from, and entry into a new clause that supports the meaning of the sentence with plot furtherance — we are told after all the commas, a new piece of information, that he cried. The commas are steps in a sentence; Semicolon is a landing.
I really want to start using more parentheses. They are nice because when you insert a clause into a sentence by bordering it with dashes, the emphasis can disorient the reader and he may have to reread it, which may or may not be a good thing. This post postmodernist part of the blog will have more commas and parentheses and fewer dashes and Semicolons.
This reduction of English grammar, I don’t know exactly what I think about it. On one hand, it’s nice because it’s becoming simpler, which allows the lay to enjoy it. Not that I’m writing for the lay, believe me, I want this to be read in college classrooms one day. But I believe that Hemingway, for example, was so successful because his prose was simple, like the Bible. In a way it’s him I have to thank for throwing the first fistful of dirt on Semicolon’s coffin. It’s the interpretation that gives meaning anyway, so why cloud my writing with excessive punctuation? Use it occasionally, and when I do, it becomes important for its relativity.