25 September 2008

Nothing Halfway about the Semicolon

A while back, the Boston Globe ran a column on the semicolon, which pointed back to (and liberally quoted from) this essay by Trevor Butterworth, originally published in the Financial Times.

Butterworth perceived acceptance of the semicolon as a quality that set British journalism off from American. He indeed found several American writers eager to write off semicolons.

  • Donald Barthelme: "ugly as a tick on a dog's belly"
  • Bill Walsh: "an ugly bastard"
  • Cormac McCarthy: "idiocy"
  • Fred Barnes: "should be turned into periods"
But Butterworth also found several American writers and editors who countenance that form of punctuation, and even appreciate its position halfway between a comma and a period.

In June, Slate's Paul Collins reviewed the long history of the semicolon, noting that Edgar Allen Poe was among the authors who thought it was overused, and that since at least 1865 other American critics have lamented its disappearance. (Thanks to PhiloBiblos for this link.) The big drop was between the late 1700s and late 1800s, not between then and now.

I rather like semicolons myself; their subtlety appeals to me. But do I put my keyboard behind that conviction? Do I actually use semicolons, as opposed to simply thinking of myself as a subtle, Anglophilic stylist?

So I searched Oz and Ends for semicolons using the little box up on top of the screen, and you know what I discovered? The Blogger search function doesn't look for punctuation marks.

So I tried another tack. I pulled up all the postings for May 2008 and used my browser program's search function to locate semicolons. Fifteen in thirty-two postings. I actually used semicolons at a higher rate when writing about comics than when writing about other types of books and other topics. (That last observation didn't factor in the relative lengths of different postings, however.)

That same month, Boston 1775 used semicolons at an even higher rate: 23 in 33 postings, exclusive of quotations. I guess working with eighteenth-century prose has its effects.

Finally, I looked at a middle-grade novel I'm working on: 8 in about 150 pages, most in short sentences recreating characters' thoughts. When you're writing for kids, short sentences are best. So I do like semicolons, but I'm not a fanatic.

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