The Passion of the Semi-Colon

Eons have passed since I last blogged. Entire generations of bloggers have been born, written, posted pictures of their cats, and died since I came before you. (Blogging generations are very short, after all, like blogging time — things that happened six months ago feel two years past at least, and it’s all a bit like that Dr. Who episode where warriors lived and died in days.)

From time to time I’ve thought, “I should put that into an essay for my journal” — that being thoughts about fan fiction, the choices of British television vs. American, how series get chosen and made (so not how you think), graphic novels I’d like to write, women directors in the 1920s, what C.S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, and Lawrence Durrell have in common, the mistakes writers trying television for the first time most often make, the gulf between the story the writer is telling and the story the audience takes from it, auditions, Los Angeles geography, and my new strategy for how I’m going to store the many books in my house. And a few hundred other things. But all those topics seem to require thought and attention to tackle properly, and I’m forever shoving them away to get through the deadlines of the day.

So to clear my blogging palate, I’ve decided to post something short and pointless. I’ve decided to share with you my love for semicolons. Not everyone shares this love (though C.S. Lewis did and so did Jane Austen). There was a time in our history when semicolons were abundant, like passenger pigeons, and people complained there were too many of them. Writers reached for semicolons as though reaching for the doorknob. According to Paul Collins:

When the Times of London reported in 1837 on two University of Paris law profs dueling with swords, the dispute wasn’t over the fine points of the Napoleonic Code. It was over the point-virgule: the semicolon. “The one who contended that the passage in question ought to be concluded by a semicolon was wounded in the arm,” noted the Times. “His adversary maintained that it should be a colon.”

That’s when manly men were unafraid of lace and snuffboxes. Errol Flynn, one feels sure, would know what a semicolon was and how to deploy it with panache. Today, sadly, many disdain the semicolon, as architects of the 1950s disdained ornament and the decorative pilasters of history. What does the semicolon do, they ask, that cannot be done with the swift intervention of a period? The period, which like a quick, clean bullet to the heart, clearly demarcates the end of a thought. Semicolons, on the other hand, allow sentences to run on disgracefully, which makes them, well… girly.

Some avoid the semicolon because they have not yet built up a relationship with it. Others fear ridicule from semicolon-haters. Still others will gingerly accept it in descriptive text, but when it comes to dialogue — well, as one writer told me, “No one has ever spoken in semicolons.” I would only say, “Perhaps you have not heard them. Perhaps the semicolon is, for you, like a dog whistle. But I myself have shamelessly spoken in semicolons, and I am not alone.”

To give the anti side its fair due, you’ll note I’ve written everything above without using even one semicolon. It’s true; the semicolon is not a load-bearing wall. But its gentle and graceful attachment of one thought to another remains charming to me. The semicolon does not force; it guides with clarity and logic through the thickets of prose — and in its way it guides the writer, too, for even a semicolon cannot link two entirely disparate points. Coherence comes as a side-effect. By insisting on shorter, quicker sentences with lots of periods, isn’t fashion being prized over actual, rigorous thought? Are we not our MTV?

And so for me, reading House scripts was like finding a spiritual home. Semicolons piled up on the pages like driftwood after a storm. One day a director brought up the subject, and asked how writers in general felt about them. I explained that some people would become violent if they saw you putting semicolons in dialogue, and then I smiled with wicked pride: “But not here.”

Because, after all, semicolons are safe at any speed. Let’s look at Austen for a moment — she springs her punctuation choices on you at the very beginning of Pride and Prejudice, when Mrs. Bennet pours out her intel on Netherfield Park to her husband:

“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is
taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that
he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was
so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately;
that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his
servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

That’s the semicolon as a series of arched bridges, all very civilized; but even in the rat-tat-tat of modern TV dialogue, where a clump of exposition like the one above would choke in the throat like a hairball — you try to leap from speaker to speaker much more quickly if you can — the semicolon works.

I declare my prosperous love; reader, I married it.

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