07 March 2011

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Cross-posted to Black Gate.

No, the title of this post is not a typo.

I have recently spent some quality time pondering the most misunderstood of all punctuation marks: the semicolon. Specifically, what role should the semicolon play in fiction? If any?

If you cruise around Google a bit, you will find that most fiction writers come down hard on this strange Moreau of colon and comma. The post on this site is one example, and the writer quotes Kurt Vonnegut’s screed against the typographical mark: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

This shows that Mr. Vonnegut had very little faith in high school. You should know how to use a semicolon before you get to college, or else your English teachers have really been taking standing naps at the podium.

Okay, so I get the gist of it from the majority of fiction advisers: semicolon is sorta strange looking, works better in academic and nonfiction work, and writers can get the same grammatical effect by turning those independent clauses into two separate sentences. And there’s always the em dash (which could start up another debate.)

Except, right as I was reading over this advice, I immediately came across two books from major writers with the semicolon putting in a great amount of time—and doing amazing things.

First, we have Michael Moorcock, one of the principle writers I can imagine flipping the bird to anybody who says “there are rules!” From his 1967 novel The Black Corridor:
There are the smooth heads, legs, arms and torsos of doll; the wooly heads, legs and torsos of lambs, tigers and rabbits; the metal legs, heads and torsos of mechanical puppets. There are the tiny powerpacs for the bellies of Ryan Toys; there are the metal parts for Ryan Toys dredgers, oilpumps, spacecraft; there are the great, shining, grinning heads of Rytoy Realboys and Rytoy Realgirls; the great proboscises of Rytoy Realphants.
This is a wonderful use of rhythm in prose, and it depends heavily on the semicolon to create “movements” through it. Full stops would not have the same effect; the semicolon (and I just used one there without thinking about it at first) is an important aesthetic part of that paragraph.

The Black Corridor is a novel with an unreliable narrator and many passages of stream-of-consciousness where a semicolon can work at slurring together ideas while still managing something harsher than a comma. However, Moorcock uses semicolons throughout the book, and not only in long lists such as this. (Two appear on the second page: “A few wisps of gas land on it; a certain amount of its own waste matters surrounds it” and “Everything is perfectly in order; exactly as it should be.”) Looking over Moorcock’s usage of semicolons, none of them strike me as hurting their respective sentences. If I didn’t already have semicolons rattling around in my neural networks at the time, I would never have stopped and said: “Hey, there’s a semicolon!” And the only time that I did stop was during long paragraph. The semicolons were doing their jobs without distracting me.

Turning to a completely different kind of writer and genre, here’s Edward Abbey in his 1975 eco-activist rabble-rousing contemporary Western The Monkey Wrench Gang:
Sitting in the dark, waiting, Hayduke proposed and discarded a number of options. First, no murder; the punishment shall fit the crime. The crime, in this case, was injustice. The officer, Hall by name, had arrested and booked him for public drunkenness, which constituted false arrest; Hayduke had not been drunk.
This is what I call “standard business” in the book, with no attempt to hit the reader with any stunning descriptive writing. Abbey has many large and elegant descriptive passages spread throughout The Monkey Wrench Gang. In this simple explanation of a character’s motivation, he found the semicolon was the best way to stitch together thoughts. And flipping through The Monkey Wrench gang, I discovered semicolons on nearly every page. Abbey certainly wasn’t trying to show that he went to college with his semicolons. His writing has the ruggedness and beauty of a pair of worn jeans.

So… the semicolon isn’t completely verboten in fiction. It seems it can be used well, and many writers do us. Hey, I just found a few in a Daphne du Maurier novel! Hey, a bunch of ‘em on consecutive pages of Poul Andeson’s Three Hears and Three Lions! Oh look, there’s two in one paragraph on page 203 of Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones! Come on, you all bought a copy, right? Go turn to page 203. And these are only the books I could reach from where I am sitting right now.

I decided to apply a simple litmus test… the personal litmus test: “Do I feel comfortable using semicolons in my fiction?”

I remember the moment when I first became aware of how the semicolon can be used effectively. It was in junior high school and came out of my copy of Elements of Style. That old Strunk-n-White set of rules is not the final word on everything (I am glad that later editions ditched William Strunk’s original suggestion that “student body” be replaced with the creepy “studentry”), it is usually the starting point for most writers, the beginning of wisdom and debate. Here is the paragraph regarding the semicolon that struck me back in seventh grade. It comes after a comparison of three different ways of separating independent clauses:
A comparison of the three forms given above will show clearly the advantage of the first [semicolons]. It is, at least in the examples given, better than the second form [separate sentences] because it suggests the close relationship between the two statements in a way that the second does not attempt, and better than the third [commas followed by “and”] because it is briefer and therefore more forcible. Indeed, this simple method of indicating relationship between statements is one of the most useful devices of composition. The relationship, as above, is commonly one of cause and consequence.
Wow, that is heavy rallying for the semicolon. Of course, there is an important modifier in that paragraph: “at least in the examples given.” So the esteemed Strunk and White were not advocating semicolons wherever possible… but they did see them as powerful tools that deserve exploration.

What stood out for me at that age was that the semicolon pulled ideas together in a way that I had not thought about yet as a young writer. I immediately started to make extensive use of semicolons in my nonfiction writing the way that Elements of Style suggested. If you look through my numerous posts on Black Gate, you will notice that semicolons show up frequently. And most likely, unobtrusively.

Fine, that’s nonfiction. What about in my fiction?

I don’t use the semicolon as much when writing short stories or novels, and I attribute this not to any maxim against their use, but because my brain operates differently when I write fiction than when I write nonfiction. I am more likely to rely on incomplete sentences for rhythm in fiction. (I also rarely ever use parentheses in fiction, but they pepper everything else.) But the semicolon does show up in my fiction. At least one appears in all the stories I’ve sold, and no editor has asked me to take them out. In my most recent novel, seventy-two semicolons appear in 91,000 words, roughly a three hundred page book. That amounts to approximately one semicolon every four pages. Looking at some of the semicolons, I can see how I might change them to separate sentences… but after extensive revisions on the book, I landed on these choices for a reason. For example, I thought that this:
Kalzzik’s “fearless attack” was probably selling a cluster of brides to the other tribe; my great-uncle was more a schemer than a fighter.
was preferable to this:
Kalzzik’s “fearless attack” was probably selling a cluster of brides to the other tribe. My great-uncle was more a schemer than a fighter.
It seems like minutiae when isolation. I imagine a fifty-fifty split from most people on which works better. But in the context of the book and the voice of the main character, I chose to have the ideas sliding together closer. For the greater rhythm, the first choice is where I stand. Regardless of which one works better, they obviously feel different. The idea that any semicolon can be replaced with a period and two separate sentence is untrue. The effect changes.

I do see the point of the anti-semicolon point-of-view. The semicolon can draw attention if used en masse and continuously, and it does generally suit nonfiction more than fiction. During rewrites, semicolons should get specific examination.

But I believe writers should never throw away any tool from their writing toolbox. Sometimes passive voice is the best choice. Adverbs can help you out. The verb “to be” is not always your enemy. And semicolons are sometimes perfect; they vary the rhythm.

Postscript: This is the shortest title for any post I’ve made. Next week: “∂” Darren Aronofsky already beat me to π.