The Considered Semicolon

She’s essentially a lady of dashes, I think, with lots of afterthoughts and sudden additions to what she’s saying, and not a lady of the considered semicolon …
— Eudora Welty, about her character Edna Earle from The Ponder Heart

I can’t stand it when people who aren’t even thirty say things like “At that point I’d written a number of not very good short stories over which I’d sprinkled semicolons (along with inapt adjectives and `symbolic’ character names) like the wishful seasonings of an amateur cook,” but otherwise I enjoyed this recent disquisition on the semicolon.

Ben Dolnick writes, “Many times a week I’d been experiencing a mental event like this: I’d be reading an article about a flood in Mexico, which would lead me to thinking about a wedding I once went to in Cancún, which would lead me to thinking about marriage, which would lead to gay marriage, which would lead to the presidential election, which would lead to swing states, which would lead to a fascinatingly terrible country song called `Swing’ — and I’d be three songs into a Trace Adkins YouTube marathon before I’d glance back down at the newspaper on the table.

“It’s in honoring this movement of mind, this tendency of thoughts to proliferate like yeast, that I find semicolons so useful. Their textbook function — to separate parts of a sentence `that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences’ — has come to seem like a dryly beautiful little piece of psychological insight. No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle.”

This was particularly dear to me because a friend of mine said recently, “Bill, you’re the only person I know who uses semicolons in text messages.” I took it as a compliment.

Recently finished The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins and So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell.

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5 Responses to The Considered Semicolon

  1. Laura says:

    The semicolon is my favorite punctuation character. It’s also the only one I know how to use correctly.

  2. Julie says:

    Bill, you’re the only person I know who writes a blog entry on semicolons.

  3. Jill Johnson says:

    The UCC church has appropriated the comma as God’s favorite mark of punctuation. No doubt Eudora has had a few words with him on the merits of the semicolon.

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