Save our Semicolons

I read somewhere that we don’t need the semicolon in fiction. The semicolon is a has-been, a left-over of the nineteenth century. Only gets in the way. Readers can’t hack it, it disrupts their race to the end. Editors don’t like it because writers don’t know how to use it.

But what if we don’t want to read to the pace of the average cops and robbers tale? If we don’t want to write the increasingly choppy rhythms of shorter and shorter sentences? This because most people seem to think that the semicolon can very well be replaced with a full stop. There can’t be just action action action. We also need the rhythms of a long lazy swell. We can’t have a storm on every page.

My primary informant on this issue is the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, published in 1966, republished in 1992. The argument will probably be that the language has changed, and that we’ve moved on. Here we are already in 2010. Get used to it. Nevertheless …

'6.24 The semicolon separates parts of a sentence that require a stronger break than that marked by the comma but are too closely related to be broken into separate sentences. For example: ‘The past is a different country; they do things differently there.’

Broken into two separate sentences it looks like this: ‘The past is a different country. They do things differently there.’ Separated by a comma, like this: ‘The past is a different country, they do things differently there.’

Both versions lose meaning. The first version ignores the way in which the two metaphors refer differently to the same idea, the past. The second sentence can’t stand on its own, and most editors would cut it. To take the two clauses separated by a comma, this construction makes me feel there are a couple of words missing. When I add them in, there are too many. I might even rethink it, ‘They do things differently in the past.’ Making it an ordinary workaday sentence, having lost the poetry and rhythm of the original.

My secondary informants are the novels I have read, in the past as well as more recently. ‘Rees anchored himself and reached down to help them; he tried not to recoil as charred flesh peeled away in his hands.’ Page 11, The Raft by Stephen Baxter. First edition published in 1991. There’s that close relationship that the Style Manual talks about. The second clause expanding on the first. The relationship is that of Rees trying not to recoil as he closes his hands around whoever is being helped. Not the charred flesh being left behind in his hands. A miniscule but important difference.

We’ve all read strings of clauses and phrases, some related closely to each other, but all separated equally by commas, making them difficult to read. You itch to make some notes in the margin to re-arrange the author’s words.

Then there are such wonderful sentences as this, ‘As she turned to enter the hut she bent her head to kiss the child’s hair, which was black; but her own hair, in the flicker of the firelight from the hearth, was fair.’ From the pen of a master craftswoman. Page 176, Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula LeGuin, published in 1968.

Why should we want to do without such exquisite detail because some people think learning to use semicolons, both as readers and writers, is too difficult? Are we saying that such sentences have all already been said, or that we don’t need them anymore, when we say semicolons are passé?

Semicolons can be a wonderful tool in science fiction when an alien action can be related to a known action for a human reader. ‘Yet they did this delicate operation, not with one or two or five fingers at a time, but with ten thousand fingers; they did it by reflex, no more noticing or planning the movement of each tendril then we notice the individual sensations carried by each neuron form our retinas.’ Page 59, The Abyss by Orson Scott Card, published in 1989.

This last example and many more like it, have convinced me there’s a place for semicolons that cannot adequately be filled by full stops and yet more commas.

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