Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Loving the Semi

I think it’s time to come out of the closet and admit I’m in love—with punctuation.

I keep hearing people say punctuation is dying. And who cares? Who needs it, anyway? Super-casual writing like texting and chatting is here to stay. Using punctuation at all in a text-message is a pain in the rear-end. A semi-colon in a text? Forget it.
The trouble is, ideas have to be pretty simple to get away with killing off all your punctuation. That’s ok for a quick chat—if you don’t care if anybody really understands you—but what about books and essays, which require more complicated thinking than lol and jk?

My favorite punctuation mark, the poor semi-colon, has suffered the worst punctuation slaughter; nobody seems to know how to use it at all. I’ve seen at least one girl stare at it like it’s a spider crawling across the page.

Girl, pointing to a semi-colon: “What the (bleep) is that?”
Me: “It’s a semi-colon.”
Girl: “Unh. What’s it do? I don’t like it. Get it away!”

“It’s intimidating,” a friend once told me. “Kids are scared of it—I’m scared of it; if you use it too much, they won’t want to read your book.”

Just to see what would happen, I took out every semi in one of my stories and replaced them—and then I had to put them back in. Things got too confusing. I didn’t know how long to make each pause in my mind when I read over it, or which sentence connected with which. Long sentences were impossible, so I felt like I was talking too slowly and too loudly in ultra-simple, toddler-style talk. It lost any lyrical feel it might have had.

I needed my semi-colons.

I needed them as a sort of super-comma, to separate a series of connected ideas; or to force a bigger pause than a comma can, when a sentence might otherwise get pretty hairy. Here’s an example of how that works, from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.” (I love this quote; I could write a whole blog post on it.)

I also needed the semi to keep things efficient; it let me stick two sentences together without having to throw in a conjunction. Efficient writing is not just shorter; it packs more punch. Open up any work by a really fine writer, and on any given page you’re bound to run across at least one semi-colon. Jane Austen can hardly get through a paragraph without one.

Here’s an example from To Kill a Mockingbird of how the semi helps show linking ideas: “A few graves in the cemetery were marked with crumbling tombstones; newer ones were outlined with brightly colored glass and broken Coca-Cola bottles.”

And one from Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451: “It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them.”

The connections are subtle, but they make a difference in meaning. (If you’re dying for more examples, look throughout this post. I’m pretty sure I’m setting a record for the most semi-colons in one blog-post. I may have gone a little crazy; I may even have undermined my own point with semi-colon abuse)

Maybe people are right that the art of semi-colon use—and punctuation in general—is dying. Maybe. But if the semi dies altogether, I wonder if the art of genuine communication might die with it.

Personally, I’m in denial. I know I’d miss my semis too much. They’re such cute little guys, with that tiny tail hanging down…and so fun to play around with.

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