Friday, June 14, 2013

In Defense of the Semicolon

Note: I recognize that stylistically, this is one of the worst pieces I've ever written; this is on purpose, because I wanted the challenge of including a semicolon in every single sentence.

While browsing Reddit the other day, I stumbled upon an interesting quote in the “Today I Learned” section; for your convenience, I’ve reproduced it below.

“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.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Unfortunately, this quote is inaccurate; I used semicolons long before I went to college, and for good reason. I will confess that there are very few situations which necessarily require semicolons; in most cases, using a period to divide the idea into separate sentences will still be grammatically correct. And to be fair, I'm not a creative writer like Vonnegut was; perhaps semicolons are more useful in my genre of writing than they are in novels or short stories. But the fact remains that in persuasive writing, semicolons come in quite handy; the nuanced flexibility they provide can greatly enhance a writer’s style and effectiveness.

The art of persuasion involves more than the content of one’s argument; two people can present the exact same ideas, without doing so in an equally persuasive manner. Rather, effective rhetoric is all about using patterns of sound to reinforce the logical concepts one wishes to convey; using the correct emphasis helps the audience to follow and understand an argument more clearly. For spoken rhetoric, this comes rather naturally to us; when somebody is giving a persuasive speech, they can use all sorts of body language, voice inflection, and hand gestures to drive home the arguments they wish to communicate. But faceless words on paper lack this capacity; as such, controlling these sound patterns with mere symbols is quite the challenge. To meet this challenge, persuasive writers must develop a “voice”; they must manipulate how a sentence “sounds” when the reader silently pronounces it in their own head. This is task requires punctuation; writers need an arsenal of symbols capable of mimicking the way people communicate when speaking face to face.

But as we know, people don’t communicate with sound alone; they also communicate with the absence of sound. Pauses are a big part of our daily discourse, but not all pauses are used the same way; to emulate this periods, commas, dashes, parentheses, colons and semicolons each represent a unique type of pause. As such, semicolons diversify the writer’s voice; they allow him to better imitate the types of pauses persuasive speakers use to maximize their rhetorical effect.

Perhaps the reader of this persuasive piece is skeptical that so many different types of pauses are really necessary; wouldn’t it seem that there’s some overlap? Certainly, some types of verbal pauses are ambiguous; two people recording the same oral statements might not use the same punctuation in their transcriptions. Certainly, many of the semicolons I’ve used in this blog could be replaced with something else; I’m sure some of you are getting tired of the redundant overuse of these semicolons by now. However, there really are types of pauses which only a semicolon can accurately convey; specifically, semicolons enable the writer to link two related but independently expressed thoughts. Em-dashes - like the ones used here – can’t do this as effectively, because they merely demarcate a temporary break in the original thought; unlike semicolons, em-dashes tell the reader that the original sentence structure will resume after this short pause. The same goes for parentheses; although they also insert a pause in flow of the sentence (which can be useful for lots of other reasons), they merely intermingle related thoughts, instead of adjacently conjoining them. Regular colons also serve a handy purpose: specifying the identity of an aforementioned thing. But they can’t replace semicolons either; you cannot place a standalone sentence after a colon without capitalizing the first letter, but you can after a semicolon.

Semicolons also grant the writer the flexibility to articulate one idea in multiple ways without sounding redundant; a period, by contrast, divides the stream of thought by formally separating one idea from the next. This is particularly useful when giving examples; effective examples must be clearly tied to the thing they instantiate, without sounding like a choppy detour from the argument they support. In these situations, semicolons enable the author to both state an idea and exemplify it within the same sentence; by contrast, breaking the argument and the example into distinct sentences might damage the rhetorical flow of the argument.

However, I will caution that semicolons are not to be overused; effective writers must vary their sentence structure to keep the reader’s interest. That’s why most of you have probably given up reading this blog post by now; using semicolons in every sentence results in a terribly written piece. But if you are still reading, I hope you learned something from this bungled mess; used properly, semicolons serve a useful function in persuasive writing.

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