You wouldn’t think that a topic as innocuous as punctuation could illicit the slightest opinion or criticism. And yet…there’s the semicolon.
A reviewer of my book wrote, “Semicolons were used a bit too often…” Who notices that kind of thing? Were they keeping count?
Kurt Vonnegut has said of them: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. That seems a little harsh for nothing more than a hybrid of a colon and a comma. And yet it can elicit such polarizing opinion.
Abraham Lincoln once wrote: I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap. While Cormac McCarthy noted simply: No semicolons.
In a letter to T.E. Lawrence regarding his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, George Bernard Shaw wrote: You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.
And from George Orwell: I had decided about this time that the semicolon is an unnecessary stop and that I would write my next book without one.
John Irving (once a student of Vonnegut) is quite liberal with semicolons; they cover the pages of his novels like acne on the face of a fast-food restaurant employee. He loves them.
I’m glad because I’m a fan of John Irving, and I’m fond of using the semicolon, as well. Too fond, according to the reviewer above. But, as I am not as knowledgeable in the technicalities of writing as Mr. Irving, I think my reasons for utilizing it are different than his.
I base my punctuation choices mostly in regards to structuring the pace or cadence of my prose, like a composer may use rests and tempo changes. I use periods, commas, dashes, semicolons, etc. to control how my words flow across the page. As author Will Self explains it: [semicolons] are a three-quarter beat to the half and full beats of commas…Prose has its own musicality, and the more notation the better. This is best tested, I find, by reading text aloud, which is one of the steps in my revision process. I’m rarely aware of the grammatical usage of punctuation; my concern is with how my writing reads, and sounds. If it’s clunky or stiff, I add or remove a comma, replace a period with a semicolon, offset a clause with dashes, or whatever, until it sounds right. The semicolon often makes for a smoother transition than a comma or an and between sentences that are related, especially if you want to play them off each other for emphasis.
I must admit, while I won’t stop using semicolons, I have become aware of their presence. In the case of my latest novel, The Quieting West, I consciously omitted the semicolon from the text altogether. Why? Because I didn’t feel the book’s narrator/author, Billy Colter, would ever use them. He’s a cowboy who’s never been to school, let alone college (to reference Mr. Vonnegut). I sometimes find myself second guessing all my punctuation choices. Like those pesky commas; my wife is of the opinion I use too many.
Finally, to be fair, the reviewer mentioned above went on to say, “…but the writing still flowed so smoothly with its sophisticated writing style that I barely even noticed after the first few pages.”
So, I’ve got that going for me.