Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.
Let it die the death it deserves," came the tough talk aimed at me by a devoted (and excellent) teacher, trashing one of my favorite punctuation marks—and, still, he went on: "No one knows what a semi-colon really does, so why even use it in a sentence?" At first I took it like an affronted and indignant-grammarian: "Why you..." and reminded him that I am also the wrestling coach. But then I relaxed, because I realized that most people don't really give a damn about punctuation marks unless it screws them up when reading? (kind of like that). If my friend has a problem with semi-colons, then it is his battle with his demons—not mine. Perhaps his animosity should be geared towards whomever taught him (or failed to teach him) about semi-colons in the first place. From my point of view, semi-colons are a pretty cool writing device--but, like strong medicine--best used wisely; otherwise, you'll be like an obnoxious rich kid flashing money around just because you can.
One of the coolest ways to use a semi-colon is to use it as a super comma—especially when you are trying to capture the nuances of a powerful image or thought. If the commonly used phrase to describe a sentence is to say that a sentence is a thought fully expressed, then why kill the thought early? We are not all as laconic as Hemingway or Calvin Coolidge. We keep telling our kids that an important skill in life is the ability to “extend a conversation” when speaking with someone else—especially someone we don’t know well; and it is the semi-colon that lets us extend the conversation in a sentence; it works to keep the magic flowing. For the most part, it seems like writers of old enjoyed their thoughts better than we do, for on the whole the old-timers used semi-colons more than we do to extend that special deliciousness of a good thought—like a long note played on a violin.
Here is Mark Twain playing a long note in Huck Finn: [Note: when reading commas, let your breath hesitate briefly or breathe in slightly. Use a bit more of a stop with a semi-colon, but keep the flow going and don’t let your voice trail off or lose steam—because you got to keep on going, baby; you’ve got more that people need to hear, and you don’t want to lose whatever precious audience you have.]
Now that is a writer who appreciates a good storm, and Twain certainly wasn’t going to let us out of this sentence until his thought was fully expressed! By not forcing a full stop by using a period, the effect of the imagery layered upon more imagery (but all describing one storm) is more heightened and more “storm-like,” which is precisely what Twain probably set out to do.
And here is Henry David Thoreau in Walden using semi-colons in a similar way; except here the semi-colons are used as a sort of super-commas that deliver a series of thoughts—all of which are directly connected to the scathing and damning thought in the first clause of the sentence.
That’s one sam hill of a sentence, even if you don’t live a mean and sneaking life! In both of these passages, two of America’s greatest writers use the semi-colon as a super-comma to tie together a series of images and/or thoughts. If only commas were used, both sentences would fall apart after a few clauses; if the writers chose to write a series of more compact sentences, the urgency and freshness of the thoughts would be deadened and lose a good part of their effect, but with the semi-colons acting as a loose glue holding together the clauses and planks of images and thoughts, we, as readers, share in the immediacy of the cascade of words; we give ourselves into the moment; moreover, we are rewarded by a thought that is fully-expressed, clearly-stated, and, above all, memorable.
So, my angry friend, if you are still not convinced that a semi-colon deserves at least some respect, can you let it survive for another profound reason—one that is based on our almost mystic response to the sound of words strung together in groups of three. For some reason the power of the trinity in writing is immense. It even has a name. When you group a series of words, thoughts, phrases, or clauses into three’s, it creates something called a Tricolon. Tying together three clauses to make one amazing (and mystically enchanting) sentence out of three connected thoughts is a skill worth learning how to do. All it takes is three clauses, one semi-colon, a comma with a conjunction, and an end mark of some kind.
Just by using that single semi-colon to connect the first and second clauses and the conjunction to lead into the final clause, the full sentence reads as a passionate plea, instead of a list of reasons.
At least it does to me.
In fact, anytime you have two clauses connected by a comma and a conjunction, you can always replace that comma and conjunction with a semi-colon—if (a big if) it sounds right to you. It is less abrupt than using a period. Instead, it creates a brief, yet connected, terseness. You can also just put in a period and create two sentences. If, woe to you, you insert a comma without the conjunction (Soyet, andor, norforbut; FANBOYS—or however you want to remember these “subordinating conjunctions), you create the dreaded comma splice and will no doubt incur the gleeful wrath of your teacher who has finally found something of substance to lower your grade even further.
So what else justifies the existence of this punctuation mark?
Here is a good one: You can use a semi-colon to separate different states and cities in a list of cities and states (not that this is a common writing practice).
Got you there, didn’t I? Otherwise, it would be comma madness. (And yes, I had to look up the cities and states that had the same names—except, of course, New York, New York.)
OK. I am scraping the bottom of the barrel here, but there is one final—albeit a bit pretentious sounding—use of the semi-colon, and that is how to use a semi-colon with a conjunctive adverb and a comma to connect two otherwise perfectly happy sentences. But I’ll admit, I do feel smart when I use these, and you will, too--especially if your teacher is impressed by academic sounding language; however, (here I go) if you use too many conjunctive adverbs, you will have to sign up for a dating service to find friends. I won’t list all the conjunctive adverbs because I don’t want to be too closely associated with their use (and misuse); moreover, I am sure by this point, I have lost the few readers I had when I started this foolish and vainglorious exercise. Suffice to say, conjunctive adverbs are words like these: nonetheless, actually, accordingly, however, nevertheless, therefore, otherwise, etc.,….
Only kidding, of course. Thanks for reading!