More on semicolons
Published: August 27, 2004
|Here's an extra scoop of advice on "our most sophisticated punctuation mark," the semicolon. Whether you're "semicolonically" challenged or not, one of these questions might be keeping you up at night. |
What is parataxis?
It has nothing to do with gypsy cabs. It's the rhetorical term for joining sentences, phrases or clauses without conjunctive words such as and, but or because. And this is where the semicolon comes in: Often it substitutes for these conjunctions, giving a different feel to the locution.
Instead of "Run away with me, since I need you," the paratactic "Run away with me; I need you" might be more lyrical. Or less dweeby.
Can semicolons be used within quoted dialogue?
Yes. Just as commas and dashes approximate two kinds of spoken pauses, a semicolon represents a pause somewhere between these two:
"Folks come; folks go," she answered. (Toni Morrison, Beloved)
Semicolons are used to separate long items in a series. What about one- or two-word items?
Use them if the intent is to convey significant spoken pauses. For example, when a lawyer listed one- and two-word afflictions that his client allegedly suffered, he used semicolons to create a "sympathy" pause after each one:
"[He suffered] ... headaches; vertigo; nausea; hypertension; scalp tenderness; insomnia; mood dysphoria; photosensitivity; and phonophobia." (John Cassidy, "The Misery Broker," The New Yorker, May 3, 2004)
When semicolons are used to separate items in a series, can a comma be used before the last item?
Yes -- use either a semicolon or a comma there, but be consistent. Wilson Follett (Modern American Usage) preferred a semicolon before the last item, but later authorities cite a trend toward commas. Just be sure that clarity isn't lost:
"She tried switching computers; she wrote by hand; she dictated to a recorder, and she prayed to her muse. Nothing helped."
Semicolons often substitute for a conjunction. So can a semicolon be used between two sentences joined by a conjunction such as and or but?
Yes. If Wordsworth (among thousands of others) can do it, so can you:
"The Child is the Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety."
Common uses for this pattern include: pause-and-continuity between a line of poetry and the sentence beginning the next line; and sentences that pick up the flow after a long sentence or complicated sentence:
"All right, I'd yea, yea and oui, oui and si, si and see, see them too; and I'd walk around in their guts with hobnailed boots." (Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man)
Where does the semicolon go in relation to quote marks and parentheses?
Outside the marks:
"She told me, 'Forget semicolons and get a life'; I didn't answer."
"She told me to forget semicolons and get a life (in so many words); I wish I'd said something."
What are some special (optional) uses of the semicolon?
1) To set up sarcastic phrases with a loose that or this:
"To thine own self be true"; that and three bucks will get you a cup of coffee.
2) Before introductory words like namely and specifically:
"We encourage a course of therapy for you; namely, get a job."
3) Between echoing statements, especially brief ones:
"A writer proposes; an editor disposes."
Do semicolons figure in American history?
They abound in historic documents. In the last paragraph of "The Declaration of Independence," for example, semicolons appear like canon shots to underscore the revolutionary claims:
"... That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. ..."
--Posted Aug. 27, 2004