A Reading Comprehension Lesson and In Defense of Semicolons

Kurt Vonnegut asserted in one of his Man Without A Country essays that semicolons were "transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing."  It's easy to misread this.  I would like to think I did.  "Transvestite" may cancel out "hermaphrodite," at least approximately.  I would like to read this not as that semicolons are across-the-board androgynous and therefore abominable, but that cross-dressing behavior and intersexual characteristics each call the other into question on a technical level, and that presumably there is some grammatical equivalent of this which is the semicolon.  I point this all out in order to explain that I do not strongly disagree with this statement because it offends me, since it doesn't, but for the other reason.  The man who wrote Slaughterhouse-Five (in which an alien race identifies "no fewer than seven sexes on earth, each essential to reproduction") was probably not a bigot.  It's also easy to misread the paragraph following that statement:

And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not.  So from now on I will tell you when I'm kidding.  (Italics mine.)

What a clever bastard.  Really.  The first quote has been resting in the back of my mind for quite some time, and I was all set to write a killer blog entry on duking it out with Vonnegut over the semicolon.  Not that I would be the first, I'm sure, but it still seemed like it might be fun.  I also meant to seriously tackle the huge pink elephant with the hula hoop in the room concerning the similarities between the classification of the semicolon as effete when it is in fact highly functional and how it compares to hateful or dismissive attitudes toward sexual or gender identities that fall between the norms.  Though now that I look, I think it's much better as a passing statement than anything approaching an essay or article.  It might work as a poem.

Vonnegut's essay is ostensibly a lesson in creative writing, but it's also a lesson in reading comprehension. I won't rule out the possibility that I'm giving him credit which should be mine, but even if that were the case, it would mean the lesson caused me to think creatively and was therefore successful.

In any case, there are plenty of people who vehemently hate semicolons.  Initially, I hadn't even specifically thought of Vonnegut.  I just wanted to write something about semicolons, which I think are beautiful when used effectively.

I know they are ugly graphically; I understand why people say that.

But they have the ability to establish a silent relationship between two independent clauses that consists only in them being visibly linked.  They also have the ability to impart logic and order to sentences which otherwise could hardly justify their messy existence.

The haters would say something like, "So basically, semicolons allow you to do something showy and useless and over-the-top."  Many times, yeah.  Other times they express something that could not otherwise be expressed.  These might be things that certain people will never want to express, but why rule out the possibility?

In the process of doing some refresh research on the topic, I came across this beautiful graph on Wikipedia (created by Brett Reynolds, available under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license), showing the frequency of semicolon use in English between 1500 and 2008:

Reynolds' accompanying blog post, which speculates on some of the data behind the graph, is quite interesting.  Much of it has to do with the fact that there are certain practical problems that get in the way of analyzing the data and what it means in the first place.  He speculates that the slight trend upward at the end of the graph may be due to the effects of Canadian and Australian literature, as looking at just British and American does not produce the same trend, but that it also might just be a mistake.  He also talks a bit about differences in how semicolons were used in the past as opposed to how they are generally used now.

This is something that I would be interested in learning more about.  It also makes me want to comb through recent Canadian and Australian literature myself and see if there is an excess of semicolons, and if so, if there is anything different about how either nationality uses them when compared to the rest of the English-speaking world.  It seems to me from my own reading experience that whatever grammatical rules have been established at any given time have not prevented major authors of that time from reinterpreting its use freely.  Of course, this is true to a certain extent of all punctuation, but I'm inclined to think that the semicolon is especially vulnerable to reinterpretation because its function often consists of establishing a subjective understanding.  Also, it has more than one use from the beginning, which risks weakening it right away.  It risks being more of a chameleon word than a punctuation mark.

Still, I think what's important is to watch how it can be used in order to do something that could not be done with any other arrangement of words or punctuation.  I'm most strongly in favor of it being used to join clauses.  It may not be as "strong" as a period, but it is often stronger and more to the point than the word "and."  The decision of whether to use one or the other may be a question of momentum.  

In my own writing, I think of semicolons as weights.  They slow everything down, make particular sentences heavy in the middle.  I tend to be a bit thrown when I see people using them like jump cuts, to speed things up or skip ahead.  It's disorienting, and from that point of view I understand the haters entirely.  I also think they look shitty in non-editorial news articles and I don't even get how they would be used in legal documents, which is an issue that has apparently caused controversy at times.

But creative writing?  I hope he was kidding.


  1. So how often do you think a writer's use of semi-colons is slapped down by an editor? I never thought of punctuatuion as subject to fashion. Odd.

    I'd also like to see Dan Savage comment on the same Vonnegut passage.


    1. I have no idea, but for some reason I would be inclined to think that the decline in semicolon use has more to do with writers than it does with editors.

      I was actually fairly surprised that I couldn't find any instances of Vonnegut being taken to task for that comment on the basis of "transvestite hermaphrodites." Maybe it's just too confusing, especially since he doesn't even try to explain what he means.

  2. I adore the semicolon; I'm glad you chose to feature it on your blog. I want to start a semicolon cult in which the secret handshake is to point at someone, which is their cue to swish out a comma underneath your pointing finger.

    1. Little-known fact: More people lose fingers that way every year...