The Semicolon Queen
by Trista Cornelius
You’re not going believe this, but I promise you it is true. While drafting this article about semicolons, I received an email from my undergraduate American literature professor. I have not seen him in 16 years, but this December, he emailed me to say he’d read an article about Karen Karbo’s book Julia Child Rules that I wrote for The Oregonian. Here is the first line of his email, and I promise you I’ve not altered a single letter:
“Trista: I knew it when I got to the first semicolon: it’s the Semicolon Queen! I mused, still showing her well-earned mastery of the mark that’s dying a slow and painful death in this electronic era of grunts which pass as communication.”
Although I think we must eventually discuss Dr. Evans’s point about “this electronic era of grunts,” pardon me while I adjust my crown of gilded semicolons and get started on the semicolon.
It’s true that I like semicolons. They seem artful to me, classy but not old-fashioned, gilding your writing with a bit of a flourish. Semicolons give creative writers options for expressing voice, controlling pace, and setting the tone.
I think of the semicolon as a perceptive and polite period. The semicolon sees that two complete sentences are so related in meaning and tone that a full-period stop would disrupt the rhythm and suggest too much distance.
For example, here are some complete sentences that really do not need to be separate:
It is true. I do love semicolons. Until now, I had no opinion about crowns. I have never worn one.
If you read these aloud and give a little extra pause after each period, it sounds choppy. See how the first two sentences and the second two go together? You can rewrite it as:
It is true; I do love semicolons. Until now, I had no opinion about crowns; I have never worn one.
There are many other options here, but you see how the semicolon separates each complete sentence while also keeping the ideas linked.
The semicolon also knows when you’re using a transition word, not a conjunction, to connect ideas. Perhaps because transition words tend to be long (however, furthermore, otherwise), or more likely because they set up a comparative relationship between two complete sentences, the semicolon once again recognizes that a period would read like a sudden stop at a cliff’s edge when you really need a bridge connecting the narrow distance between two ideas. For example:
Until now, I had no opinion about crowns; however, I don’t see why wearing one made of punctuation marks would be a bad idea.
In this example, the semicolon sits where the complete sentence ends, hitches the transition word (however) to the first sentence, and hauls along the next complete sentence. Here’s another example with the same construction:
Perhaps I should wear the crown only on weekdays; otherwise, I might appear pretentious.
This does not mean, however, that you always use a semicolon with a transition word. See how I just used “however”? It’s not linking two complete sentences, so no semicolon is needed.
Lastly, if you have a complicated list – maybe each item in the list has description, uses commas, or is a phrase in itself – semicolons come along to replace the commas. The semicolons more clearly delineate where one item ends and the next begins.
Here’s an example using only commas:
My punctuation crown arrived in the mail yesterday. It has a brilliant sheen but is a tad heavy because the top includes an emerald-topped silver semicolon, gold, leaf-engraved commas, three copper exclamation marks inlaid with turquoise, lapis, and jade, ruby-studded periods along the bottom, and glitter quotation marks.
That sentence should be confusing, as well as wildly ridiculous; I feel ridiculous for having written it.
Now, let’s add semicolons:
My punctuation crown arrived in the mail yesterday. It has a brilliant sheen but is a tad heavy because the top includes an emerald-topped silver semicolon; gold, leaf-engraved commas; three copper exclamation marks inlaid with turquoise, lapis, and jade; ruby-studded periods along the bottom; and glitter quotation marks.
See how the semicolon makes it clear that the exclamation marks are inlaid with three different stones, while the periods are ruby-studded? Before, it could be read as exclamation marks inlaid with turquoise, and then elsewhere on the crown were lapis and jade.
You now love semicolons as much as I do, right? In “this electronic era of grunts,” semicolons might even give you space to say a bit more by saving you a character or two. Being the polite and perceptive marks they are, semicolons fit quite nicely into tweets or Instagram comments:
nice crown trista; where’d you get it #ridiculouspeople #takingacomplimenttoofar
Thanks for reading; you are now citizens of the Punctuation Kingdom!
Trista Cornelius writes Voice Catcher’s monthly column “Dotting Your Ts and Crossing Your Eyes” and is currently on a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College where she has been teaching writing, literature and food studies. Follow her writing, reading and eating adventures here.