Semi-Serious Comment on Punctuation

Kottke recently linked to a video of Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer-character, and he talked about the semicolon. I love this quote:

“Don’t use semicolons. They stand for absolutely nothing. They are transvestite hermaphrodites. They are just a way of showing off. To show that you have been to college.”

The semicolon has drifted out of contemporary usage, and I feel generally where a semicolon is used, a period or a comma might work better. I find the semicolon has an archaic feel, and those writers for whom the semicolon works well tend to be dead and buried, or else taking on an intentionally ornate, old-fashioned, or throwback style.

Elmore Leonard is handy with them, and uses them a lot, but the guy was writing and publishing novels before my parents were born.

Stephen King uses a ton of semicolons, but he also does a lot of nonstandard technical stuff. He’s a big-time Elmore Leonard worshipper.

I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt with semicolons if their voice is strong and their prose is unusual. I’m halfway through Laird Barron’s collection Occultation (fantastic work, review forthcoming) and he’s got a slew of ’em in there. His writing also includes all manner of unorthodox technical stuff, though — dialog set off not by opening and closing quotes but by an emdash at the beginning, or short paragraphs containing dialog by multiple, different speakers.

Generally I’d say the semicolon bothers me less when the writer shows a confident, slightly experimental, maybe even baroque approach to stringing words together. In the middle of plain vanilla prose, however, the semicolon stands out in just the way Vonnegut describes. Beginning writers, stick with the comma and the period. It’s easy enough to remember what those guys do, roughly corresponding to the yellow and the red traffic lights, respectively.

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