Know, Respect, Break the Rules: Part Three: L’Engle’s Semicolon

I love semicolons. I used to get into trouble all the time for a grammatical sin known as the comma splice.  On the scale of grammatical sins, it’s a big one. A comma splice occurs when you use a comma to separate what could potentially be two complete sentences. In these instances, you should either go ahead and make two separate sentences or use the most distinguished of all punctuation marks: the semicolon. How do you decide?

1) Stress the connection between two statements; use a semicolon.

2) Make your point stand out. Use a full stop.

3) Mix it up. Don’t use short sentences over and over. Using lots of short sentences is unsophisticated. It gets monotonous. Your reader will be bored. Your reader will feel insulted… Conversely, a short sentence placed shrewdly after one or two longer sentences will stand out. Communication success!

Well, when I finally discovered the semicolon, I became free to do what I was trying to do all along but wasn’t doing; I wanted to connect two complete ideas with such fluidity for the reader that a full stop would never do. A comma is too weak and too needed elsewhere to bear the burden of the semicolon. But I didn’t know.

And then, suddenly, I did. After many an annoyed “comma splice” written in red upon my papers, and someone taking the time to say, “Either use a semicolon or make two sentences,” I knew the rule and had an instant affection for it because it provided just the boundary I needed but didn’t realize I was searching for.

Several years later I discovered Madeleine L’Engle. Most of my classmates read L’Engle as children, and fell in love with her Wrinkle in Time series. My introduction to L’Engle was her memoir, A Circle of Quiet and then her very profound, very necessary and meaningful “reflections on faith and art,” Walking on Water. Through these works I felt a fast friendship form with Madeleine, and my relationship with the semicolon deepened—from like to love. In A Circle of Quiet, L’Engle talks ontology and play, and ontological play is how L’Engle punctuates. It’s fun; it’s intentional; it’s art.

Semicolons are frequently used to aid the comma in complicated lists. For example, the semicolon is a great way to list lists:

I had bacon, eggs, cheese grits, and fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast; tuna salad, an apple, and V-8 Splash for lunch; and steak, mixed vegetables, and sweet tea for dinner.

L’Engle does this often enough; however, sometimes she uses semicolons in simple lists too:

  • “A signature; a name; the very being of the person you talk to…”
  • “I try to be careful whom I use as a mirror: my husband; my children; my mother; the friends of my right hand.”

Why would L’Engle do this when in these instances a comma will do just fine? Emphasis. At least, that’s my guess. What do you guys think? My other guesses include readability and flow, style and creativity. Consider the above example, the complex list detailing the menu du jour. Despite how delicious it sounds as a menu, it’s pretty boring as a sentence; L’Engle is never boring.


Just in case you missed it: Part One & Part Two

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4 Responses to Know, Respect, Break the Rules: Part Three: L’Engle’s Semicolon

  1. the bandit says:

    “Why would L’Engle do this when in these instances a comma will do just fine? Emphasis. At least, that’s my guess. What do you guys think?”

    I’m a heavy user of the semi-colon, and I’ve noticed the same tendency recently in my own use of lists. I think I do it especially when I want to emphasize the individual pieces rather than the list as a unit and when the list objects are so long (1-2 lines in and of themselves) that I feel a comma might simply confuse the reader.

  2. reneamac says:

    Thanks, bandit; great feedback. Punctuation really is all about communication, isn’t it? Good writing is good communication fostered by punctuation that serves both the author and the reader.

  3. the bandit says:

    Exactly! My university degree was in linguistics, and many linguist scholars tend to be “descriptive” rather than “prescriptive” when it comes to syntax. Having been a nerdy, follow-the-rules-to-the-letter student in high school, the concept of communication trumping rules shifted my paradigm. Mix in respect for Shakespeare, who communicated so well while creating words when necessary, and I’ve allowed all of these concepts to mellow my attitude to grammar as well as words.

    However, as with dancing and photography, one needs to know the rules and be able to abide by them before they can be broken properly. Thanks, rm, I enjoyed the articles in this series.

  4. Pingback: Know, Respect, Break the Rules Part Two: CS Lewis & Capitalization « speak what we feel

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