Semicolon Blow: On Using and Teaching an Unnecessary Punctuation

colon blowI’m fond of it really. However, consider how much we teach the semicolon with how little the punctuation mark is needed. Of course, students need to know what it is and at least how it can be used to combine sentences (of course, its use with lists is often overlooked). But maybe we shouldn’t stop there; maybe we should do more to challenge students rhetorically.

The problem with how the semicolon is taught is not only a how problem; it’s a why problem. Instead of stopping at how to use a semicolon to combine sentences, perhaps we should also have students think about why we should.

Ask a student to write a sentence using a semicolon and you might get something like this (followed by the semicolon “formula”):

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You can’t argue with that: it’s is correct. Yay for the student. However, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Writers don’t focus on writing correct sentences (in fact, sometimes, we write incorrect ones). Writers focus on writing good sentences. So is the example above a good sentence?

That, of course, depends. This sentence represents a specific situation, with a setting and characters, each of whom has some sort of motivation. Different sentence constructions with different ways of combining these two ideas will take on different meanings. I’ve borrowed strategies and terminology from Jeff Anderson and Constance Weaver to develop the following rhetorical analysis of the simple semicolon.

First, look at these examples, combining the two clauses in different ways. How are these different from the first version, and how then are they similar and different?

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Obviously both follow the same pattern. In A, most likely it is two facts with little connecting the two, although it is possible we are celebrating the fact that Tom and Joe both brought something or that they together brought two things (as in, they’re roommates and were only expected to bring one thing). But that’s not what happened at all.

So let’s look at another way of expressing the same sentence. How is this different rhetorically from the previous?

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Again, the pattern has changed from the first two, and there is a different structural order. But the significant change is that we now see the relationship between these two facts. What we now see is that Joe’s bringing pop somehow influenced Tom’s bringing pizza.

So then, how is this next example any different?

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Rhetorically, the semicolon with a conjunction creates more of a pause or highlights the connection between the two ideas more forcefully. So in this last example, I would argue that it most clearly represents what I had in mind: Joe and Tom had a rather heated argument about who could take pop and who would have to get the pizza, so when Joe rushed out and got the pop, this caused Tom to get the pizza, reluctantly. That semicolon and conjunctive adverb best underscore Tom’s plight.

I’m still, though, wondering about that first sentence and when it would be a good example, that simple semicolon formula. Well, semicolons can be good when sentences get really long but you don’t want to start a new one. For many students, this is dangerous territory, the equivalent of a large pair of scissors in the hands of a small child. Instead, a semicolon can be used to connect two sentences when the two ideas are so closely related that no “connector” is needed and a new, almost dramatic affect can be achieved. Consider this alternative scenario, ending with the original sentence:

Tom and Joe agreed to arm wrestle. The winner could get the pop while the loser had to foot the bill for the pizza. They squared off, locking hands in preparation for battle. At first Tom had the upper hand, but then Joe found a hidden reserve of strength and battled back. The two went back and forth for some time until it seemed no one would be able to win.

Tom brought pizza; Joe brought pop.

Here are examples of semicolon use:

Shadrack knew it; Sophia sensed it.     The Glass Sentence, S.E. Grove (23)

We never broke up; we fizzled out.     Team Seven, Marcus Burke (114)

To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.     Winston Churchill

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!     Mark 9: 24

The keys are mine; the car, tragically, is not.     Paper Towns, John Green (27)

He didn’t kill her; she killed herself.     Mercedes, Stephen King, (292)

And lastly, two examples from We the Animals by Justin Torres, a novel which could provide a study in the use of semicolons. My theory on Torres’s use is that he often has the young, naive narrator leave out any conjunctive connector between two actions, giving the sense that he doesn’t see or understand the connections between the actions, just the actions themselves.

Ma was suckling her fingertip; she had cut herself on the jagged edge of the soup can. (39)

Manny pumped two fake swings; I flinched each time. (110)

 

For further reading or research, read this article, or consider this lesson, or read this piece from the Boston Globe.

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