Gething: Thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Semicolon: The pleasure’s all mine; thank you for having me.
Gething: My interest is in the controversy you have stirred in the literary world.
Semicolon: I’ve done no such thing; those who don’t use me seem to be causing all the fuss.
Gething: That’s my point. Many modern writers, in particular Cormac McCarthy in his interview with Oprah, have called for your extinction. What did you do to create such a virulent reaction?
Semicolon: Ask Mr. McCarthy; to my knowledge I did nothing.
Gething: But you must have done something. He’s not calling for the elimination of the period or the question mark, or even the colon in certain instances.
Semicolon: No, he seems to have targeted me in particular…and the exclamation mark; I don’t know what we did to deserve such enmity. My purpose seems quite clear—to connect two or more independent clauses more closely than ones separated by a period. I believe there’s still a place for that in the world.
Gething: You do have some supporters, only—let’s be honest—not too many users today.
Semicolon: Not true! A very lucid writer recently defended me in the New York Times.
Gething: But he also quoted Vonnegut who said that semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”
Semicolon: That’s a gross exaggeration. Henry James adored me; incidentally, many consider him the paradigm of subtlety; he was certainly more subtle than that Vonnegut fellow.
Gething: Yes, but there is a modern sentiment that long sentences connected by semicolons obscure rather than make thoughts clearer. I sometimes feel that way about Henry James. Modern writers—journalists, novelists, poets—they tend to shun you.
Semicolon: Well, what do you expect from poets?
Gething: What do you mean?
Semicolon: They are barbarians; they hardly use any punctuation at all.
Gething: Doesn’t that suggest that meaning can be received without punctuation? Its absence might even create interesting double meanings.
Semicolon: You mean vagueness and ambiguity. Perhaps that’s modern, too.
Gething: McCarthy says, if you write clearly you don’t need more than a few punctuation marks.
Semicolon: Then why use any at all? Why not write so clearly that periods and commas can be avoided as well? Isn’t punctuation simply a convention to help the reader comprehend the writer’s meaning? What if you presented these words without punctuation?
Gething: I don’t know. Let’s see:
Then why use any at all Why not write so clearly that periods and commas can be avoided as well Isnt punctuation simply a convention to help the reader comprehend the writers meaning What if you presented these words without punctuation
A few awkward spots but I might get used to it with practice.
Semicolon: I suppose you’ll be calling for the elimination of capital letters next.
Semicolon: I am bitter. I feel angry; I feel hurt; I feel betrayed. In speech we use pauses and intonation to convey meaning. Why can’t we rely on perfectly acceptable conventions of punctuation, including the semicolon, for the printed word?
Gething: You make a good case, but it seems convention is dictated by usage not by argument. I fear for your longevity.
Gething: You know, my sister quit dating a guy who used semicolons; she said he never knew when to stop.
Gething: Just trying to make you feel better.
Semicolon: Then start by using me more; only please, don’t abuse me!
Overwhelmed, thank you!
I was overwhelmed by the response to my interview with a semicolon. Being “freshly pressed” brought the controversy to many more readers than I ever would have imagined. It’s hard to believe that a piece about punctuation could bring out such passion, but there you have it—bloggers are passionate about communication and therefore passionate about punctuation.
It’s reassuring to note that everyone who commented was an advocate of semicolons; if that’s any gauge, the likelihood of their fading into the sunset is slight despite the trend shown in the graph below.
There were also a few comments about other outliers in the grammar world: the overused exclamation mark, the frivolous comma, the daunting dash and the lowly adverb. These may need their own space in their own time.
Thank you to all who viewed, commented, liked, or followed my blog; I will try to live up to your expectations.
P.S.: I shared your feedback with Semicolon. He emailed back from his publicity tour: “I am heartened that my plea was so well received. I have always lived by the words of E.M. Forster: ‘Only connect…’ I see that your readers live by the same wisdom. Thank you.”
Filed under Commentary
Tagged as E.M. Forster, Punctuation, Semicolon