In defense of the semicolon
I write today in defense of the semicolon.
In the old days, before my time, our forefathers wrote in tedious paragraphs, filled with long agonizing sentences. When I try to read ‘the classics’, I can’t. By the time I reach the end of a paragraph, I am exhausted, and I have lost the meaning of the whole thing.
Will Strunk and Ernest Hemingway pushed us to short sentences in short paragraphs: WHAM period, BAM period, SMASH period, CRASH period. This has become the accepted style for writing. It’s the way I write; it’s the way many of us write.
The one long piece I am writing, and will ever write, is intended for my grandchildren. Concerned that my writing would be above their head and cause them to lose interest, I started running my work through Readability Software. To my horror, I found my writing was not above their head but beneath their ability. My writing was showing up as ‘fourth-grade’ reading level. They will not slam the book shut because it is too hard, but rather because it is insultingly easy and consequently boring. I needed to find a way to write better sentences.
I am working on that. A video course on building great sentences and a book entitled How to Write A Sentence are my guideposts. I am stunned at how much I don’t know about the simple act of constructing a sentence in the English language. How about you?
Writing in all short sentences is as bad as writing in all long sentences. Good writing should be a mixture of both: short sentences for action and plot movement and long ones for pause and reflection. My need is to learn how to write longer sentences and how to mix them effectively. You can’t get very far into working with long sentences before you encounter the semicolon.
“A balanced sentence hinges in the middle, usually split by a semicolon, the second half paralleling the first half, but changing one or two key words or altering word order.”
Building Great Sentences by Prof Brooks Landon
I must digress for a moment. The semicolon has taken on special meaning in the world of mental health: “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life,” explains Project Semicolon’s website. Just as the mark is a sign for readers to pause before continuing a sentence, participants have embraced the symbol as a reminder that their story isn’t over yet—and that they should tell it. Could’ve quit, but didn’t.
Of course, we have rules on how and when to use the semicolon. There are not many; they are not hard.
Use a semicolon to join two complete thoughts not linked by a conjunction; to separate two independent clauses joined with a conjunctive adverb; to separate items in a series that contains internal commas or other punctuation; to separate lengthy items in a series [like this one] to help the reader.
I like this as an intuitive guide:
Comma – catch your breath.
Semicolon – catch your breath and grab the thought.
Period – Full stop, end of the idea.
Grammatically, you can almost always substitute a period for the semicolon, start a new sentence, and have two short sentences. But if the thought is not complete, that’s not the right thing to do.
To illustrate my point, I have chosen an absurdly long sentence. It is of the form “When you (blank); then you will (blank).” I would not, should not, could not, write a sentence like this. Three hundred fourteen words, eleven dependent clauses, ten semicolons, and a 13.5 Flesch-Kincaid grade level score. Grammarly went ‘tilt’ on this sentence. OMG, give me my red pencil.
“All bad sentences are long, but all long sentences are not bad.”
Though long, this one is not bad; in fact, it is wonderful. Each clause leans forward, straining to get to the end, building rage as it goes. Semicolons keep it together; periods would destroy it. What do you think?
But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”; then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963
Word Count: 1,003