Mourning the semicolon; it turned into a wink and was gone…

I’m of an age when I can fondly remember articles, objects, bits and pieces, things that just don’t exist anymore…

Card Catalogs — Yes, I was a librarian who learned how to catalog and classify a book and type a perfect catalog card (in triplicate) with accurate punctuation, including semicolons; but we’ll get to that later…. (Old librarians never die, they just get reshelved.)

Electric typewriters  — especially the Selectric, which greatly aided in typing the aformentioned catalog cards in triplicate with semicolons.

LPs — Ah, the sound of the needle hitting the vinyl; wondering how many we could stack at a time; sprawling on the floor next to the speaker reading liner notes and the words to Leonard Cohen songs; filing the records alphabetically in orange crates; arguing if Old and In the Way should be filed under Garcia, Grateful, or Old… (Old guitarists never die, they just come unstrung.)

Words — Perfectly good words have been hijacked. Like hoe, cloud, text, troll, dirt, tablet. Being a country girl at heart, I was startled a few years ago when a colleague told me she would never read or tell a story that had the word hoe in it. “Really?” I asked. “I guess you wouldn’t read Peter Rabbit out loud?” Can I just say that in my garden, one of my favorite tools is a hoe? Although while using it, usually I’m staring at the clouds or watching for trolls in the dirt. (Old Gardeners never die, they just spade away.)

And now semicolons. Just in case this surprises you as much as it did me, use of a semi-colon now dates you; modern writing methods reject semicolon usage. So all of us who perfected the use of putting together two similar sentences and joining them with that lovely little winking punctuation mark? We are marked as over the hill; just like that, our skill is no longer needed. (Old semicolons never die; they just wink over the hill…)

I’m not sure how this has come about, but I can certainly posit theories with the best of old grammarians. (Old Grammarians never die, they just lose their verbs.)

Theory 1: The Internet has shortened everyone’s attention span, so that long sentences are simply an annoyance. Short sentences please. Or no sentences. Just a verb maybe? If a sentence is too long, shorten it. Have two thoughts joined together? A period in between will do just fine. Hey, the shorter the better. And no long words either. (Old programmers never die, they just cache in their chips.)

Theory 2: No one has time (or wants to take the time) to sit down and luxuriously read long novels with elegant prose and graceful sentences. We want that first chapter, no, the first paragraph to pull us in with action; if it doesn’t deliver, well there’s another book on the Kindle that will. I used to give a book sixty pages before I gave up on it; the other day a reader bragged that she never gave any book longer than the first paragraph… (Old writers never die, they just start a new chapter.)

Theory 3: Texting and emails and emoticons have ruined punctuation and spelling.  Nthng els 2 b sed ;-) The Carnegie Mellon professor, Scott E. Fahlman,  is credited with inventing the emoticon in 1982 when he used :-) and :-( on a bulletin board. (Old professors never die, they just lose their class.)

Graph from Grammarly.com

Theory 4: Simplicity in writing is now a virtue.  People who hate semicolons (Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, probably Hemingway) are terse, get to the point, and put-down-that-period writers. I don’t hold that against them, certainly, but it is their style, which goes hand in hand with Theories 1 and 2. (Old theorists never die, they just keep making assumptions.)

Theory 5: Readers want the sentence to be over before it’s over; a semicolon means there’s more to the story. There is beauty in a semicolon allowing the writer to build on a thought; a semicolon also allows the writer to believe that the reader can follow a semi-complicated sentence. It’s about trust between the writer and the reader; yet, a semicolon is also about tone and nuance in a sentence that commas and periods just can’t get across. (Old readers never die, they just turn the page.)

In researching semicolons (to find out if reports of their death were greatly exaggerated) I found this brilliant quote by Lewis Thomas, scientist, essayist, and lover of semicolons:

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. . . . It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.

As an old librarian (who has not checked out quite yet) I suggest that we enjoy that pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is always more to the story….

17 thoughts on “Mourning the semicolon; it turned into a wink and was gone…

  1. I think this winter I will choose to read a book with “elegant prose and graceful sentences” just to slow down and enjoy both the story and the skill of the writer. As a fellow “reshelved” librarian, I am allowing literature to be replaced with words. Thank you for the wake up call!

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  2. Refreshing to see I’m not alone in using the semicolon. The limit on the number of characters on Facebook posts led me to WordPress and the creation of the Red Dog Garage. I have fought the trend to abbreviate words and sentence structure, both at work and home, along with the lofty goal of catching my grammatical errors before clicking on the send icon.

    Old draftsman never die, they just get bored. 🙂

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  3. I use semicolons all the time. How dismaying to find out that it labels me an Old Person! Oh, and I hear that instead of long sentences or paragraphs, the impatient instead now prefer bulleted lists. :-(

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  4. This is so clever, so wise, so true, so well written, so incredibly funny. As a semicolon user and fan, you made my day with this post. Have you submitted it to magazines or newspapers for publication? I’m serious. I can see the New York Times Book Review picking it up or any number of publications for writers or newspaper sections about books. There is a universal audience for this piece of writing, I’m certain of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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