Sunday, July 15, 2012

Semicolons and special sales!

"I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer."
--Lewis Thomas

The not-so-humble semicolon [ ; ]. Use it:

to help sort out a monster list:

There were citizens from Bangor, Maine; Hartford, Connecticut; Boston, Massachusetts; and Newport, Rhode Island.


to separate closely related independent clauses:

My grandmother seldom goes to bed this early; she's afraid she'll miss out on something.

The semicolon allows the writer to imply a relationship between nicely balanced ideas without actually stating that relationship. (Instead of saying that *because* my grandmother is afraid she'll miss out on something, we have implied the because. Thus the reader is involved in the development of an idea: a clever, subliminal way of engaging the reader's participation as she reads.)

It is the balance of the see-saw. It joins related ideas. It prevents comma splices and heals your split ends. It's a useful mark that will NOT damage any reader's experience of a story as long as that reader has proper reading comprehension and has been taught the traffic signals of grammar (period, full stop; comma, pause; semicolon signaling a strong connection between two independent clauses, colon signaling that the second clause is explanatory in some way or illuminates the first clause, parentheticals for salient asides).

So fear not the powerful punctuation marks.

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WHOA. You came here for a free poem, not a sales pitch. Okay, here are a few free poems.

My Haiku

Five syllables here
Seven more syllables here
Are ya happy now?!

Cat Haiku
You're always typing.
Well, let's see you ignore my
sitting on your hands.

Dog Haiku

My human is home!
I'm so ecstatic I have
Made a puddle.


John Brantingham said...

The semicolon: thank you for using it and explaining it correctly. As an English teacher with a lot of grammar classes, I'm going over that one again and again. The world is confused about it and with good reason but you have it!

John Brantingham said...

Hey, I just used the colon incorrectly! Dang it.

Shalanna said...

No, in the first comment, you're properly using the colon, IMHO: the second clause illuminates the fragment you began with. I think that's OK. Of course I don't have my Fowler at hand nor Curme's Grammar. LOL! But I do think you're doing OK.

I despair of ever explaining stuff to the younglings who are coming up through the ranks of people who entirely misunderstood the postmodern movement toward simplicity. Subject-verb-object is not cadenced prose when you just repeat the pattern over and over (and Hemingway did NOT do that--go to any of his work and actually read it!) Some workshop people are telling them never to use advanced punctuation nor subordinate clauses, but those developed for a reason! We need such constructions to explain advanced concepts and the relationships between ideas.

If we continue dumbing everything down, then soon we won't be able to record or explain advanced ideas. It's not a good idea to encourage students to reduce their reading comprehension and feed this frenzy for the worship of short attention spans.

But then what do I know? I'm not in charge.

Kit Sloane said...

I respectfully disagree about using semicolons in fiction. I think the less "distinctive" punctuation is, the better the reading experience. Of course, we know what the semi is for, it just can be a jarring experience when reading stories. I use it for nonfiction, not in fiction.

As GMiki Hayden wrote in her terrific THE NAKED WRITER, critical style points for new and sophisticated writers, "the semicolon, because it's rare, can attract some notice from the reader." This effect disrupts reading. I don't care that we all know what it's for, it's distracting. I recall an email from a publisher, not-to-be-named, who was lamenting going through a ms with tons of semicolons and asking my advice. I suggested dumping them, making the offending sentences into two, or simply substituting the good old comma.

Reading from the printed or electronic page should be easy on the reader. This doesn't mean DUMBING DOWN, it means easy on the eyes, and that goes for the tired eyes of editors initally reading the mss, too.

Just my humble opinion, of course.


Beryl Reichenberg said...

Loved the dog haiku!! It made me laugh and smile and laugh again. The English lesson was great too. Beryl

Shalanna said...

Beryl--I had fun with those. Dog haiku is particularly true!

Shalanna said...

Kit--aha, a post from the enemy camp! (LOL) Yes, I jest. We must agree to disagree.

The semicolon is not rare, IMHO. It is only "rare" in some popular fiction, if it is, because teachers/workshoppers suddenly turned against it and began teaching its avoidance. We have lost middlebrow culture, to be sure, and now everyone thinks any elevated prose is Uppity and Bad. This does not bode well for our society, IMHO.

When I'm reading, here's what happens. (And this could be related to the way I learned to read in the early 1960s.) Part of my mind is visualizing the "vivid, continuous dream" mentioned by John Gardner, and that part is following along happily in the story. Another part, the "overmind," if you will, is going along appreciating clever turns of phrase, passages of cadenced prose, interesting metaphors, and so on. This is the part of the mind that will note mistakes in punctuation or misspelled/misused words. It's the part that does the underlining or highlighting of passages on the Kindle. It turns pages. And so on. When the overmind notes that the writer has once again substituted "it's" for "its," the overmind sighs and possibly makes a note, but the part of the mind enjoying the tale is still going happily along and isn't pulled anywhere. Only when the errors begin piling up and affect its parsing for meaning does the Overmind give up and throw the book against the wall. I thought everybody read like that. Possibly not.

Still, a carpenter knows his or her tools, and is not daunted by the idea of using a particular kind of wrench or a Philips screwdriver because he knows when to use which one. The person who lives in the house he built just enjoys the house and doesn't even notice whether the screws are Philips head or slotted (as long as the house doesn't come falling down on him). If we begin limiting the types of punctuation and the length of words we "should" use in fiction, we'll lose shades of meaning and degrees of expression. Soon we'll be sound-biting in leetspeak (l33t5peak) and using smileys. Perish the thought!

By the way, if you "simply substitute the good old comma" where semicolons belong, you have a comma splice. You can, of course, edit a manuscript to have shorter sentences and fewer compound-complex sentences, but that's not the way I would do it. You will change the essential voice of the piece. The result could be either more enjoyable or less interesting. (GRIN)

If you look at the works of some popular authors, you'll find semicolons. Take Big Steve King, for example. And Dean R. Koontz. I think I may have even seen the semicolon in the Harry Potter series. So it's more a matter of personal choice. As long as you are using the mark correctly, your readers shouldn't have any trouble following you. In fact, it might increase their reading comprehension to read something that is slightly above the Fleisch levels they've been sticking to--and they might find they enjoy the more complex text. I would bet, though, that readers who are not critique partners don't even NOTICE the punctuation as it goes by. The punctuation is supposed to increase clarity and reduce the need to regress/backtrack to decode ambiguity. Most readers wouldn't even notice whether an author uses colons, semicolons, or whatnot, I'd wager.

But if your style works better without them, by all means don't use them. There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays--and every single one of them is right.

Sally Carpenter said...

Love the poems. When I'm typing, my cat doesn't sit on my hands--he stands in front of the monitor or lays down and swishes his tail over the keyboard.

Beryl Reichenberg said...

Part of the problem is that we have become accustomed to using shorthand and shortcuts: acronyms, texting, short, simple sentences, etc. We forget the beauty of a complex sentence (think Henry James) to convey a complex thought.

Even in writing children's stories, I believe we should be stretching our audience. There is a phrase used among authors of children's books: we should "young down" not "dumb down" the concepts and style.

Shalanna said...

Love the concept, Beryl!

Some time ago I got a Kindle for Christmas. One of the free books I got right away was an edition of PETER PAN by J. M. Barrie. I happened to open it just for grins and got sucked right in. The writing level is somehow right for me at my advanced age as well as for children. It is SO well written. It is a masterpiece! I don't mean the Disney version or the Little Golden Book. I mean the actual novel. It is NOT dumbed down at all. This edition, in fact, has a glossary for the "hard" words. The story is still fascinating. No wonder PETER PAN has stood the test of time!

I get a lot of static from the people who prefer to use what they believe is a Hemingwayesque style. (Papa's sentences can be very long, in fact--they're just subordinated in a different way.) I still think we need to help readers climb in every way, including vocabulary and appreciation for turns of phrase.

And no one has mentioned the MOST IMPORTANT part of my post . . . I only have four syllables in the final line of the Dog Haiku! I must've been hearing it in a Texas accent (Te-yax-as ack-sey-unt) when I did that line. Need to fix it. Without losing the funny.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I never use semi-colons in dialogue. Had an agent tell me once, we don't speak in semi-colons. Having written that, my editor for my next Tempe Crabtree book inserted many semi-colons where I'd never use them, and I just left them there.


Beryl Reichenberg said...

Sometimes Shalanna, it's ok to bend the rules! Losing the "funny" would be a shame. Let me know if you come up with a solution. Beryl