Sunday, July 08, 2007

Endangered Semicolons

It’s summertime, the livin’ is easy – right?

Well, it’s easy livin’ to some – but not to the poor semicolon, whose existence is fading as fast as the Polar Ice Cap but without a Live Earth Concert to protect it. (Witness the first line, above.)

The actual lyrics to the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime” are, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” The “and” between “summertime” and “the livin’” keeps the flow of the line going; it also links the first part of the sentence to the other.

There – did you see how I snuck in that semicolon?

A semicolon is perfect for when you have two related sentences without an “and,” “but,” or “or” to connect them; a semicolon tells you to give each related sentence equal attention – not just a comma’s worth of a pause – because a pause is sometimes just not enough:

Like in “Clueless” when Paul Rudd accuses Alicia Silverstone of driving through a stop-sign: “I totally paused!” she says in California-style self-defense. But, you see, a “pause” – whether on paper or on wheels -- is not the same as a more definite stop.

A semicolon between two sentences tells the reader that each part is sufficient to stand alone, but that there is a close relationship between the two parts that would get lost with a full-stop period. (A comma should not attempt to join two complete ideas – and I’ll get to that.)

In the excellent, humorous grammar book, “Woe Is I,” author Patricia T. O’Conner calls the semicolon “one of the most useful but least used punctuation marks,” and I have to agree. O’Connell also thinks people might be too intimidated to use semicolons, but I think that’s optimistic: (I put a colon there because a colon means, “now I’m going to elaborate.”) if people are thinking that semicolons intimidate them, then that means they’re at least thinking about semicolons. I don’t think most people even think about semicolons.

To those of us who remember watching “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch,” the semicolon probably dates back to some grammar lesson slept through years ago. Those born during the “Beaver” and “Brady Bunch” years probably did not even have a grammar class, so they now hardly recognize a semicolon’s existence -- except as a curiosity found in other people’s writing.

Willing as I am to accept that punctuation, like language, changes, losing the semicolon would indeed be a loss. Visually, semicolons carry more muscle than a comma. Commas don’t stop the flow – they simply regulate it, with changes of tone and pauses. Semicolons bring the flow to what O’Connell calls the “flashing red light” stage – a brief stop; they serve as connector-rods to strengthen a sentence.

The trouble is, people have found a way to live without them; but their writing suffers as a consequence. A semicolon is red meat, full of iron; a comma is lettuce – valuable, good for you, but light and somewhat flimsy, occasionally left to an author’s discretion or whim.

Transition words like “however,” “nevertheless,” and “anyway,” are always followed by a comma; commas separate asides, things that could also be put in parentheses; and commas, which are often forgotten in these cases, go before clauses beginning with “which.”

Commas also separate items in a list or series; but when that list already has commas and/or dashes in the items, use a semicolon. Like: Don’t forget to bring the popcorn, which I hid on the back shelf so no one would it eat before the picnic; the cream soda – mmmm; and a big blanket for the lawn.

Semicolons hold together two related sentences. A sentence, or “independent clause,” has a subject, a verb and a complete meaning. For example, “John reads” is a complete sentence, with a subject, verb, and complete meaning. Likewise, “Run!” is a full sentence, because it has all the elements of an independent clause: a subject -- in this case, an understood subject, which is “you;” a verb, “run;” and a complete meaning, which is along the lines of “You’d better get out of here fast!” In contrast, a clause like, “When you run” has a subject and verb but no complete meaning, so that is a “dependent” clause.

Newspapers articles tend to use periods, commas, and dashes. (We’ll get to dashes another time.) Semicolons are more often used in magazine articles and books. However, lately, in books or articles where there are plenty of properly placed semicolons, there are random paragraphs where they were left out. Either this is a dubious stylistic choice, or simply editorial neglect, I don’t know. For example:

*The book, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” is a perfect example of the spineless punctuation seen today. I could see if this were a list, like: Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and semicolons are nowhere. But as it is, the title lacks the bite a nice semicolon would have provided.

See if you can find the missing semicolons in the following passages:

In Philippa Gregory’s, “The Other Boleyn Girl”: “Whenever I looked up the king’s eyes were on me, whenever I looked away I was conscious of his stare still on my face.”

In Nick Hornby’s “How To Be Good” the husband says to his wife over the phone, “Yeah. Molly’s here watching TV, Tom’s round at Jamie’s.”

And in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” a person quoted in an article in a Hogwarts newspaper says: “We’re not allowed to talk about it, don’t ask me anything.”

Moving away from literature and fixating on the warning on my cup of Barnes & Noble/Starbucks coffee, I see the following:

“Careful, the beverage you’re about to enjoy is extremely hot.”

Now, why did the coffee-cup editor put a weak, little comma after a warning? An exclamation point, or at least a period, would have been more appropriate for preventing drinkers from burned fingers and potential lawsuits. Grammatically speaking, a full-stop would have been the correct choice too: “careful” is actually a command and thus an independent clause with an understood subject (you) and understood verb (be), with “careful” a complementary adjective. “You be careful,” is what the word really means.

On a daily basis, I find plenty of semicolonless emails like:

“Here is the report, I hope you can understand it;” or
“Thanks for the update on Shelia, I was wondering what happened to her.”

You might argue that those lines, punctuated with commas instead of semicolons, sound the way people speak. But to me they simply lack muscle, or definition; they’re just not going to last.

Printed interviews often take the same comma-or-bust approach, which robs the speaker of the expression and intonation he probably better conveyed on tape:
In an online interview with Eric Zala who, with his two friends and fellow “Indiana Jones” fans, spent seven years, between ages 12-19, remaking “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” said, “My mom had this big rambling house and a huge basement which was perfect for our makeshift soundstage, where we would later shoot the bar, the cave, the Well of Souls, the map room, and we listened to a bad horror movie sound effect records, two 12-year-old kids getting inspired about the idea of doing our own Indiana Jones movie.

Still, it’s not too late to start a Semicolon Survival Campaign; it just might work. We can start with a little grass roots effort and build awareness from there. And by Summertime 2008 we might even see ”Punctuationfests” carried by satellite right to your living rooms, Palm Pilots, cellphones and iPhones from semicolonless spots all over the world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great blog: it was entertaining as well as enlightening. I think semicolons are really important; I think commas are freguently misused.