The Working Waterfront

Pontificating on the wonders of punctuation


Phil Crossman
Posted 2020-09-17
Last Modified 2020-10-04

One criterion, revealed to me during an adult writing class, that must be present to justify the use of the semicolon is the need for a complete thought on either side of the punctuation. Webster’s dictionary defines the semicolon as “a punctuation; used chiefly in a coordinating function between sentence elements.”

The former criteria, from the writing class, which Webster violates by using a semicolon to separate two incomplete thoughts, is much clearer than this ambiguous offering (it doesn’t even offer a simple graphic).

My own concept of a semicolon simply evolved from some murky instruction offered in high school, something about providing more of a pause than a comma. I’ve never given voice to such a definition but have consequently and routinely employed it with wild abandon and then found myself hearing repeatedly from critics, editors, friends and my wife, “This is no place for a semicolon.”

There are other interesting interpretations and asides. A semicolon, for instance, is a dot beneath which there is another dot with a tail, not unlike a sperm chasing an egg upstream. It is the most erotic punctuation save, of course, the exclamation point.

Danish comic Victor Borge once created a legendary routine whereby he employed sounds and gestures to describe various punctuation. The result was hilarious and involved him reciting a story and inserting punctuation, not by inflection, but by the employment of the aforementioned gestures and sounds.

The semicolon and the exclamation, each composed of two parts graphically, required the greatest effort and evoked the greatest response. A semicolon was described as a “boink” as his index finger jabbed a point and a “querrrk” as the finger then squiggled a comma beneath the dot.

The Princeton University Writing Center defines a semicolon as chosen to link “two closely related complete sentences, eliminating the need for a coordinating conjunction such as and, but, for, or, not, etc. to join them.”

The center also reminds us that we can “use semicolons in long, complex sentences, where clauses are joined by coordinating words, or to signal a significant pause. If the sentence contains a conjunction, a comma may be used, but a semicolon emphasizes the break between clauses, which can shape a particularly long sentence.”

Title 15 of the United States Code of Law, Section 3151, deals with civil rights.  At one point, it admonishes that in instances of noncompliance the “Secretary of Labor may refer the matter to the Attorney General for civil action, exercise powers provided for by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or take other action as provided by law.”

For the lack of a semicolon it was once argued in court, by the government, that the Secretary of Labor must take all three forms of action, that the lack of a semicolon implied no independent actions since no independent thoughts were implied. The defense argued successfully that “there was no legal obligation on the part of the framers of the legislation to use a semicolon to indicate independent action; that the inferred choice of action was clear.”

The argument may have been strengthened by its own misuse of the semicolon in the quoted sentence. In any event, it was overlooked by the justices.

An interesting thing, the semicolon. For the first half of my life it caused me great consternation. I understand, I think, better now and hope to demonstrate that fuller comprehension in the future.

Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven, where he serves as a member of the town’s select board.