They say that a story mustn’t be the author’s confession, but they also say that rules are there to be broken, so here’s a story about a confession. I love semi-colons. Yes, that’s the confession. Actually the confession is the fact that I adore semi-colons. I adore how beautiful they look on the page when used properly, but I hate – and hate is the word – when they are used incorrectly.
I should get a life, I should find something more important to occupy my mind, like climate change or the apparent fate of bookshops, but sometimes it’s the little things, isn’t it.
There’s a rule that semi-colons must be used sparingly because otherwise they annoy a reader, a bit like how a child who insists on playing drums with his cutlery in a restaurant puts the diners off their food. I’ve been told that I use semi-colons too frequently, so on top of this confession is a commitment: in this story about semi-colons I won’t use any, not a single one. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so they say.
What is a semi-colon and how should it be deployed?
My trusty Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary says that a semi-colon is a punctuation mark ‘used where there is a more distinct break than that indicated by a comma but less than indicated by a full stop’. Fair enough, but to my mind this definition is a bit too elusive. It’s a bit like saying that a chicken is larger than a quail but smaller than a goose – we all know chooks are much more magical than that.
Barbara Dykes in Grammar Made Easy (1992) gets closer to solving the mystery of the semi-colon. She believes that our little friend ‘separates two complete ideas which could be written in two sentences [but] are written in one sentence to show that they are closely related’. Yes, that’s much better. It’s this tension that I so adore, because it’s in this tension we find life, in that space between this and that, here and there. The semi-colon is the beach of our language – it’s the sand between the ocean over there, the deep, dangerous ocean, and the land, the safety we have right here, right now.
So that’s my confession. I adore semi-colons.
They are my favourite punctuation mark; they mean the world to me.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 27 August 2011.)