idiots, even among pedagogues, are the teachers of English.”
H. L. Mencken
It’s not enough, apparently, that
the forces arrayed against the semicolon have mounted a frontal
trying to exterminate it in some grammatical war of attrition (see: What’s
Punctuation, and Where Can I Get Some?); they seem to
have formed a fifth
column amongst many of the grammarians who still tolerate
Because the few uses these “authorities” do recommend are so truncated,
oversimplified, and impoverished as to discourage most of their readers
employing this punctuation unless they’re desperately attempting to
sort out a complicated
list…and left with no other rational choice but to hesitantly type a
into it — trembling in fear that at any moment the Grammar Police might
through the study door, confiscate the small dot over the comma, and
their license to write.
It’s hard enough to write as it is,
twits churning out one style guide after another — in print and on the
internet — filled with intimidating dictates which can cripple an
otherwise promising, prose stylist. If I sound bitter, it’s because I
occasion to read a lot of style guides.
Don’t we all? (I’m assuming, if you
found your way to this
page and have read until now, you’re one of those tortured souls who
about this stuff — you know, language?) The problem
with this morass of
(sometimes) good, (usually) mediocre, and (often) bad advice is that it
the ears of the impressionable — those who genuinely want to know. It’s
taking some kid who comes to you seeking a bit of genuine enlightenment
instead of really teaching him much of anything, you load him down with
abridged copies of the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate and King James,
the Upanishads, the Tripitaka, some Yeats poetry, the Mabinogion, an
two, Bullfinch’s mythology, and toss in some Zen koans, then tell him,
truth’s in there; so sort it out.”
The fact that all of our English
grammars are written in a
single language doesn’t make whatever linguistic truth they might
Let’s try wrestling with a specific
of it, shall we: semicolon use. And we don’t have all day, so let’s
down to one particular aspect: the prevalent notion that (without
good legal defense) you should never place a semicolon before a
conjunction. People love examples, so here’s one.
I could easily place a comma into this
but I choose not to.
And I can hear the alarms going off
now down at Usage
Central. The Grammar Police, Punctuation Division, are strapping on
pencils as I continue to type. “Did you see what he just did?” / “Yeah,
was premeditated.” / “We’ll throw the book at him.”
The “authorities,” you see, insist I
should remove the but
or replace the semicolon. And under other circumstances, I might;
either of those options would subtly alter the emphasis. So, in this
keeping both in, because the combination conveys precisely the defiant
I want in that sentence. It’s my choice, after all: and it’s really a
style rather than rectitude.
Many modern grammarians (or
grammarians from any era, I
suppose) fail to grasp that. This isn’t to say there should be no
English grammar and punctuation, no rules whatsoever. But the hallmark
punctuation and grammar ought to be clarity; and governing rules should
derived from the usage of good writers, not arbitrarily imposed upon
determine whether they are any good.
There’s actually a style guide in
circulation that tells
us there are only two common [my emphasis added]
uses for a semicolon.
The first, it says, is to separate items in a list, and the other “legitimate” use is to
separate two independent
clauses in one sentence. The advice goes on to inform the innocent that
risky to use semicolons anywhere else.”
No wonder they’re falling into disuse.
I’m reminded of a line from The
Importance of Being
Earnest by Oscar Wilde. When one of the characters comments
that she had no
idea there were flowers in the country, the other responds: “Oh,
flowers are as
common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.” All
depends on how you want to
define “common,” doesn’t it?
Well, throughout the prose of most
authors I admire, semicolons
are not uncommon — much like flowers in the country.
The pity of it is that I can’t even
estimate how many
other style guides I’ve encountered which either parroted or
same advice. They list two — if they’re feeling generous…or wary of
counterattack, perhaps two and a half or three — circumscribed functions
punctuation, then warn against its use.
And most of these warnings actually
take the form of
Here’s one from one of the most
popular and respected
grammar sites on the internet: “You
should never use
a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and,’ ‘so,’ and
join two main clauses; that's the job of a comma.” In all fairness to
author, she doesn’t seem actually hostile to
semicolons (even uses one
in that last sentence; also coherently discusses clauses, conjunctive
etc.), for which I am grateful — and she does go on to mitigate her own
“Nevertheless, there are a couple of instances where it's OK to use a
with a coordinating conjunction.” The first exception she allows is
you have a long sentence with multiple independent clauses, and some of
clauses contain internal punctuation such as a comma, you can use a
with a coordinating conjunction to make the separation between clauses
clear.” The second, of course, is to separate items in a list.
goes to show: Never say
never. Ya might have to tack -theless
on to it soon.
advice is simply wrong; and
what chiefly makes it wrong is that it’s dispensed in the form of a
pronouncement. But what I object to most is that other, even less
people tend to further condense it, then pass it around ad nauseam as
ironclad rule: “Never use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction. Amen.”
see what some other
authorities have to say about it.
Common Errors in English,
Paul Bryans states: “When a compound sentence contains
commas within one
or more of its clauses, you have to escalate to a semicolon to separate
clauses themselves.” I don’t entirely disagree with that, but it’s
Did you notice that now you not only “can,” but “have to”?
I would have
said it’s more a matter of discretion — but consider the source. He then
this example: “It was a mild, deliciously warm spring day;
and Mary decided to walk to the fair.” I must
admit, I like his illustration. That single little comma, hunkered down
an adjective, allows us to — I’m sorry, makes us — use
(This won’t get me off with the
Grammar Cops, though. If
you recall, the illustration I gave you had no commas whatsoever. But
back to that.)
Mr. Bryans goes on to say: “Many
people are so terrified
of making the wrong choice that they try to avoid colons and semicolons
altogether, but I’m afraid this just can’t be done.” With that, I
wholeheartedly agree, so let’s continue.
The Chicago Manual
15th Edition, tells us that a semicolon is “stronger
than a comma but weaker than a period” and “can assume either role,
function is usually closer to that of a period.” We’re next told: “It’s
common use is between two independent clauses not joined by a
Well, sure it is.
discusses its use before a (conjunctive)
adverb “when used transitionally between independent clauses” and
however, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides,
“among others” (while observing that “I think, therefore I am,”
famous phrase, “remains an exception to this usage” — English is filled
However, it then goes on to say: “Before
An independent clause introduced by a conjunction may
be preceded by a
semicolon, especially when the independent clause has internal
Please note the word “may” in that
dictionary I checked, it grants permission. At the very least, it
possibility. Then take special notice of the word “especially.”
mentions its use “before expressions
such as that is or namely”…and
(except for examples not cited
here) the entry’s done.
Garner’s Modern American
Usage (by Bryan A. Garner)
describes the semicolon as “a kind of ‘supercomma’” and says the mark
“separates sentence parts that need a more distinct break than a comma
signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate
(Who said authorities have to agree?)
Garner then enumerates four uses:
First, the semicolon is sometimes used to unite closely connected
typically, as in this very sentence, there is no conjunction between
Second, the semicolon sometimes
clauses in long, complex sentences.
Third, the semicolon separates items
in a series when any
element in the series contains an internal comma.
Okay, so far. Except for slightly
more measured language, that’s about what you’d expect. But wait for
it — because
in his final section he points out a basic use for the semicolon that
not likely to see mentioned in your common (yeah, that’s the way I intended
it to be read) style guides.
Fourth, the semicolon sometimes appears simply to give a weightier
pause than a
comma would. This use is discretionary. A comma would do, but the
a stronger stop — e.g.: ‘There is never anything sexy about Lautrec’s art;
but there’s also never anything deliberately,
sarcastically anti-feminist in it.’ Aldous Huxley, ‘Doodles in the
(1956), in Aldous Huxley, Selected Essays 198, 206
Wow, discretionary. What a
I particularly like the example he
gives us. The sentence
is neither long nor complex. There are some, however, who would
argue — while
gritting their teeth over seeing a semicolon there at all — that it must
be, since it has that solitary comma. Which is nonsense, of course;
that semicolon merely for effect.
So, imagine their chagrin when I let
you in on this one.
Remember that part of the “rule” which allowed you to use a semicolon
coordinating conjunction between independent clauses if “some of those clauses contain internal
punctuation such as
a comma”? Well, the internal punctuation is discretionary,
too. No comma
necessary. Just the contrast, the balance, the effect. Bet no one in
your bargain rack style guides ever told you that.
But don’t just take my word for it — I’d
think less of you
if you did.
To drive the point home, I’ll provide
examples from undeniably great writers. This, after all, is the only
test of good usage.
When I realized I’d have to address
this issue, I knew I’d
need ammunition; and when I have to cite a primary source of excellent
style, I usually turn first to Mark Twain. Knowing that practically any
of his writing would demonstrate this principle, I grabbed the first
caught my eye, Following the Equator. A short
search revealed that Twain
used over two dozen semicolons in the first chapter, over four dozen in
2, almost five dozen in Chapter 3, etc. (And remember, this is just one
of his books, selected at random.) At any rate, for the purpose of this
discussion there’s no need to examine them all; so I’ll limit myself to
those which seemingly violate the “rule” — spread by myriad “grammarians”
inhibit once-open minds — that a semicolon is never to be placed before a
coordinating conjunction (unless said conjunction is
located within an
otherwise punctuated series of items; or unless the
sentence is long and
complicated, and contains, in addition, at least one comma; or unless
the structure of the sentence, absent the onerous necessity of a
would produce bewildering confusion). All of these examples meet those
criteria. None of them contains a conjunctive adverb. I eliminated any
indulged so much as one comma, and even pitched out those which might
reasonably be construed as too long or complex. But they all do
a short coordinating conjunction preceded by a semicolon.
I pulled all of these out of Chapter 1
aforementioned book by Mark Twain. It took about two minutes.
electric lights burned there as late as the ladies and their
friends might desire;
but they were not
allowed to burn in the smoking-room after eleven.
days I drove out the desire to smoke and was not obliged
to keep watch after that;
and I never
experienced any strong desire to smoke again.
I imagine the
prescriptivists are grasping at straws already. Well, they
are a bit
long, they say, and there’s an additional and joining the
compound predicate in the first
independent clause of that last one, so…maybe…
Okay, this one is short. And
you can’t say the reason for a semicolon is an and
the coordinating conjunction following the semicolon is but.
taken ill himself and could not come;
but I did not need him.
I was a
so I gave
thanks and took to those delicacies again.
That last one might
even reflect your revised attitude toward semicolons, once you’ve
Yet the next one’s my
favorite, not only because it illustrates the point so well but also
seems to make an accidental remark about this whole sorry punctuation
perpetrated upon an unsuspecting public by “authorities” who don’t
as well as Twain did.
such a pity;
there was no help for it.
borrowed the next from Conall
Blackrock, Ireland, author of a short
piece called “A Survival Guide to Punctuation,”
himself to me with this sentence from the introduction: “People who can understand the rules
may break them, if
the need arises; those who cannot, may not.”
In the section
headed “Semi-colon” (that’s how he spells it; it’s perfectly
acceptable — let it
go), he lists four main uses; and none of them, interestingly enough,
old standby about subdividing a list if the elements within it already
commas. One is simply: “To join two ideas that are connected
the first is: “To create a sense of balance between two phrases.” As an
example, he gives us a sentence from H. L. Mencken:
A Trinity College
man here tells me the Irish
don’t say Jesus;
but he is the son of a
Please note that this
sentence of Mencken’s isn’t encumbered by any additional punctuation. A
compound sentence composed of two independent clauses joined by a
conjunction, it does contain a semicolon placed before
conjunction — but no commas. By the rigid and short-sighted standards I
at the beginning, there’s no excuse, and no recourse to the argument
construction is long and complex. Mencken placed that semicolon there
willfully, deliberately, simply because he chose it for emphasis.
This example also allows Mencken and
me to take another
shot at “schoolmasters.” Who you gonna believe, them or H. L. Mencken?
Then I thought I’d take a quick look
at G. K. Chesterton,
to see how he used them. It goes without saying that he did so
extensively — not
to mention precisely, and to great effect. But did he ignore the
dictate against placing one before a coordinating conjunction not
flanked by a
comma? Of course, he did. It didn’t take long to find a juicy example
Again, I just selected one of his books, but this time not quite at
Since a theme seemed to be developing, I went for What’s
Wrong with the
World and turned immediately to Chapter 31, “The Truth About
Education”…just for grins. I came up with this within seconds:
might be the most trivial facts or the most preposterous
views or the most offensive qualities;
if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education.
It seemed applicable
to the discussion on more than one level, not just the punctuation, but
“preposterous views” part.
Now, I’ll give you he had
opportunity to use a comma in that sentence, but he chose not to. He
instead to put in one semicolon…before the coordinating conjunction.
On a roll, I next turned to George
Bernard Shaw. (Since
most of the writers referenced here also wrote fiction — and the
Shaw’s plays is deliberately idiosyncratic anyhow — I selected only
their nonfiction. This was a conscious decision,
intended to foil my
critics, who sometimes say things like: Well, you know, you
can get away
with anything in fiction.) In Shaw’s
case, I started with Maxims
for Revolutionists (are you beginning to detect some sarcasm
here?), and once
more, it only took a moment to find:
and servants are both tyrannical;
but the masters are the more dependent of the two.
no perfectly honorable men;
but every true man has one main point of honor and a few
But the real gems were
in Treatise on Parents and Children:
of liberty we must let everyone take;
but the risks of ignorance and
self-helplessness are another matter.
This is a
the fact that it is on the lips of every nurserymaid does not excuse it
I thought that last one
appropriate to sum up the whole argument.
Oh, I know he didn’t write this line
to refute a
preposterous “rule” about semicolon use, yet I doubt his tone would
much less indignant if he had. Besides, the semicolon in his sentence
the rule beautifully.
So, what can we glean from all this?
Well, for openers, that standard usage
should be dictated
by the actual example of excellent writers, not dictated to
arbiters of usage.
That some of the rules you were taught
semicolons are arbitrary.
And that the best source for brilliant
writing style is
the work of brilliant writers themselves.
course, this is clandestine
information. It’s not as if just anybody can find the works of Aldous
Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, G. K. Chesterton, or George Bernard Shaw in
public library or on the internet. And even if they do, there are now
in place to keep people from ever writing that way again.
We have authorities to put a stop to
that sort of thing.
In fact, I probably shouldn’t have
told you any of
this — “need to know basis” and all that.
You think they can’t read what you
type (well, until it’s
published, at least)…but you’d be wrong. Those cheap style guides worm
way into your superego, supplant your editorial conscience, then stand
you as you compose, placing a cold hand on your shoulder, telling you
out that comma” and “delete the friggin’ semicolon.”
What I’ve divulged here amounts to an
investigation of the Grammar Police, Punctuation Division — they’re the
worst — and
I’m still gathering evidence.
But they’re on to me, and…
Oh, shit. I think they are
kicking the door in.
They’re after the essay, man. ’Cause they don’t
want this kind of
information made public — but I’ll get it on the web if it’s the last
thing I do.
If you read this, tell my wife and
colleagues I tried. And
I’ll keep typing until