The Semicolon: A Love Story


“Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a seep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.” – Lewis Thomas

I’d like you to meet the Semicolon: the love of my life.

I became acquainted with the Semicolon when I was at the ripe age of 12. We met in a 7th grade English class, a course aptly titled, “7th Grade English.” Of course, I’d seen the Semicolon around before, here and there in textbooks and novels, but I never knew him by name. If I had met him before, it was only in passing, a brief encounter. We had a long courtship, the Semicolon and I. We flirted with each other, batted eyes, but it wasn’t until the end of high school that we fell in love. And, oh, we fell hard.

The next few years were a whirlwind. The Semicolon followed me to college, and I brought him along on all of my adventures, both creative and expository. We walked hand in hand snugly through sentences, danced triumphantly through paragraphs. But I’d be lying if I said those years were easy. You see, not so long after I committed to the Semicolon, I met the Em Dash. The Em Dash took me by surprise, and took me by storm. It was a constant push and pull, back and forth between me, the Semicolon and the Em Dash. I loved the continuing long talks the Semicolon and I would have together, but the determined brashness of the Em Dash was bold and new, and quickly winning me over. Each vied for my affection, and I gave it to them, equally. But by senior year’s end, I had made my decision.

I can’t promise that I didn’t choose the Semicolon based on looks, but looks did play a large part. Not to say that the Semicolon is the most visually pleasing of all punctuation marks, but he quite possibly is. I love the Semicolon’s non-symmetry. Not quite a colon, not quite a comma, the ambiguity of the mark lends to mystery. The Semicolon is more complex than a comma, softer than a period. And unlike the Em Dash, the Semicolon has curves: the Semicolon is sexy.

The MLA Handbook Sixth Edition dedicates a quarter page to the mark. (For reference, the comma gets four and three-quarters pages and the colon gets one and a half.) The official uses of the Semicolon in the MLA are as follows: a) Use a semicolon between independent clauses not linked by a conjunction, and b) Use semicolons between items in a series when the items contain commas. The rules are simple. But if the rules are so simple, why is the Semicolon not as commonly used?

Maybe most of us just do not know what the Semicolon is. E.B. White humorously remarked that the Semicolon merely existed as proof that a writer attended college. Is that statement true? Is the Semicolon saved only for the pretentious? Or is it that the Semicolon appears so late in life that the mark simply gets overlooked, forgotten by those of us not directly in contact with it? The Lonely Islands make it seem so. In the hilarious song titled, “Semicolon,” comedian Andy Samberg and pals show off their knowledge of grammar by using the precious mark in every line of the punctuation-laced rap. The problem? They never actually use the Semicolon. Though they cleverly rhyme Semicolon with Demi Brolin (what happens when Moore and Josh get married,) the boys ultimately do not make the distinction between semi- and regular colon. When told they are incorrect, the boys answer with a bewildered, “Wait, what?” Wait, what? May be the most common response to the Semicolon. But the Semicolon ought not evoke bewilderment.

So what exactly is the Semicolon? Writer Noah Lukeman calls the Semicolon “a bridge between two worlds.” The Semicolon is neither period nor comma: it is both. The Semicolon is weaker than a period, yet stronger than a comma, and it is used to reconcile the two. The Semicolon is the great mediator. It elongates and cuts short, varying and maintaining the rhythm of a sentence or a paragraph. The Semicolon connects two thoughts, but allows each thought its own sense of independence. The Semicolon can enhance word economy. The Semicolon can change the length of a sentence as needed. The Semicolon is a “compliment from the writer to the reader.” The Semicolon is a balancer.

But, after all is said and done, the Semicolon is not wholly necessary. Nowhere so far in this essay will you find a Semicolon. The mark is unneeded, but at the same time, it is this optional absence that makes it special, sacred. One cannot have a sentence without a period. One will find it hard to go a paragraph without a comma. So when the Semicolon is placed in a work, it draws attention. The Semicolon cannot be thrown around willy-nilly; the mark’s placement takes care. For that, I do not see the Semicolon as merely proof of higher education, I see the Semicolon as proof of love. The Semicolon demonstrates the love of the written word, the love of language.

And now, I look to all the Semicolon lovers of the world; I salute you.

image – Isabelle