20 February 2021

Semicolon wisdom

Lauren Oyler, in the New York Times Magazine, writes about how good semicolons are, despite being unpopular:

I don’t remember when I first learned about semicolons, nor do I have a mental list of remarkable semicolons in literature. I don’t want to have to treasure them, though the typical advice for writers of all levels is to use them sparingly, as if there’s a limited supply. This only breeds fear, which in turn breeds stigma: Semicolons are ugly, pretentious and unnecessary; they immaturely try to have it both ways. There are so many things to fear in life, but punctuation is not one of them.

Semicolons are the weird ones. Semicolons are like this friend you like but don’t want to spend too much time alone with, fearing you won’t like them as much afterwards, afraid it would ruin the illusion of what you thought this friendship was. So you see them from time to time — but not too often, when you’re confident, and within a group of mutual friends: commas, dots, dashes.

Think of semicolons as instant noodles: delicious, easy to get, extremely satisfying. You don’t need to look at the ingredients — trust me it’s a bad idea — but you are nevertheless very much aware than you should only treat yourself with this Spicy Curry Duck flavour once in a while: these things are basically spicy salt broths; did I mention they are delicious? I love semicolons.

Of course I can’t write about semicolons without mentioning Frank Herbert’s use of the semicolon in what is arguably my favourite passage of Dune (1965):

Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert.

I can’t tell you how mad it makes me to see this sentence written with a comma instead of a semicolon, or worse, without anything between cities and wisdom: this character adds a je ne sais quoi which makes this sentence feel deeper and more meaningful somehow. It is hard to describe, but Lauren Oyler then has the perfect definition for the semicolon:

The semicolon conveys a very specific kind of connection between ideas that is particularly useful now — it asserts a link where the reader might not necessarily see one while establishing the fragility of that link at the same time.

That belongs in a museum.

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