In Praise of Semicolons

Buss, Robert William, 1804-1875; Dickens's Dream
Robert William Buss, Dickens’s Dream, 1875 (via)

Literary influence is usually amorphous, which is why an influence-obsessed critic like Harold Bloom has to bring in words like clinamen, tesserae, and apophrades as well as esoteric schools of thought like gnosticism, kabbalah, and psychoanalysis to explain it.

Even when you can identify what one writer took from another, it is often a matter of “sensibility” or some other indefinable; when Borges reverses time to propose that Kafka influenced Browning, he’s referring to an air of menace hovering over a quest and not some more specific gleaning. More narrowly, writers may borrow archetypes or registers, as with the mad king/captain/judge done up in apocalyptic, archaic English that passes from Shakespeare to Melville to McCarthy, or the inward young middle-class woman whose inwardness morally redeems her world that we find in Richardson, Austen, James, and Woolf. But influence is not usually much more precise than that: a tone of voice, a heroic ideal, a vision of nature or humanity.

On the other hand, I know precisely who gave me my immoderate love for the semicolon: John Irving. It was not so much his practice as his outright advocacy that drew me to imitate his punctuation habits. I may not have noticed how semicolon-laden his sentences were if I hadn’t encountered a few interviews with the author where he expressed his faith in the compound sentence; I remember copying into a notebook, at the age of 15 or 16, a few lines from a TV appearance where he mocked (I quote from memory) “the one comma, one period, and you’re out Hemingway bullshit.”

I must have associated what I then found to be his novels’ enveloping atmospheres and knotted plots with his punctuation. In each of his sentences he joins two separate independent clauses, just as in each of his novels he joins his disparate and far-flung characters into one overwhelming destiny. Insofar as I aspired to write fiction that felt as densely fated as his, both complex and unified, it seemed useful to adopt the mark of punctuation that stood for complexity and unity. This is an after-the-fact reconstruction of what were more inchoate teenage impulses; all I know for sure is that I began writing semicolon-studded prose around the 10th grade.

As he always insisted, Irving himself was inspired by Dickens. In his essay on Dickens, “The King of the Novel,” which I read in high school as the foreword to the Bantam Classics edition of Great Expectations and which is more readily available today in his collection, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, Irving writes of the 19th-century novelist:

It was relatively late in his life that he began to give public readings, yet his language was consistently written to be read aloud—the use of repetition, of refrains; the rich, descriptive lists that accompany a newly introduced character or place; the abundance of punctuation. Dickens overpunctuates; he makes long and potentially difficult sentences slower but easier to read—as if his punctuation is a form of stage direction, when reading aloud; or as if he is aware that many of his readers were reading his novels in serial form and needed nearly constant reminding. He is a master of that device for making short sentences seem long, and long sentences readable—the semicolon!

There are two assumptions worth specifying in this passage. First is that punctuation is an aesthetic matter, not a question of correctness: most creative writers aren’t grammarians. Dickens used commas and semicolons to give direction to breath, a script for performance. Over the course of the last century, however, we have split text from speech, literature from orature. Poetry and fiction may trace their roots to song and stage, but modern technology and reading habits have removed the voice from literature. We read silently, whether in public or private.

Both of the 20th century’s major artistic-intellectual movements, oversimplified as modernism and postmodernism, converged on this point, or at least their chief theorists did: think of Hugh Kenner’s observation that modernist poetry is written for the eye in an era when the typewriter democratizes print over script; or Jacques Derrida’s thesis that language in all its iterations is scored by structural failure, and that therefore speech no more than writing can guarantee meaning, value, or authenticity.

Have you ever heard deconstructionists read literary texts aloud? They give the same weight to every word, including a, an, and the, often pausing in pregnant befuddlement after prepositions or conjunctions, as if permanently baffled by every last signifier. (I believe, but cannot prove, that this academic style is the origin of “poet voice.”) Given these assumptions, Dickens’s use of semicolons and other punctuation to give directions for a shapely rhetorical performance can only seem naïve; hence the belief that the semicolon is aesthetically outdated, whatever its grammatical function.

The second of Dickens’s assumptions as explained by Irving is that an excess of punctuation should make a text easier to read. Semicolons, like commas, are clues in the labyrinth of the text: they help you find your way.

The modern conviction, though, is that a text should not be a labyrinth. It should be simple, direct, transparent, and “impactful,” both in its meaning and its design. Think of everything from Strunk and White’s journalistic rulebook to the midcentury popularity of the Helvetica font (as explained by the excellent film on the topic). This is corporate modernism; simplify everything so it is easier to manage. Thoreau may have said “simplify, simplify,” to resist being ensnared by a commercial culture, but over a century and a half later, simplification is one of that culture’s devices to disarticulate (literally) resistance.

Which brings me to the controversial polemic against semicolons, published almost a year ago but now making the social media rounds, that inspired these reflections:

This goes back to that Kurt Vonnegut quote at the top of this story. The semicolon is a flashing red light that says, “Hey, reader, I know things.” And flashy writing isn’t accessible writing.

Consider that roughly 88% of Americans have high school diplomas, but only around 32% have finished college. So along with avoiding what I like to call “$10 words,” like braggadocio, schadenfreude and despoil, sentence length is critical.

I’ll return to the point about class and education shortly, but the Kurt Vonnegut quote alluded to goes like this:

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.

It’s true that you can’t attend or teach college with that attitude: the ideology implied in the slur “transvestite hermaphrodites,” whatever it means exactly, probably qualifies as gender-based harassment under Title IX. And there is probably a point to made about how the fear of linguistic impurity may reflect a fear of “social impurities” at large: see, for instance, Ezra Pound (“Use no superfluous word”; “Consider the definiteness of Dante’s presentation, as compared with Milton’s rhetoric”).

Moreover, though, note the presumption that formal educational attainment alone gives a person a taste for aesthetic ardor or complexity. This would have been very foreign to Dickens, a reformer and liberal who lacked the classical education once thought to qualify a man of letters. The anti-semicolon article makes an example of H. G. Wells, whose class origin was lower than that of Dickens. Or consider a contemporary writer: Gerald Murnane, also of working-class origins, who is an ardent champion of the long sentence. Or recall the many noted testimonies out of the African-American tradition, from slavery to Jim Crow, from Douglass to Ellison to Baldwin to Wilson to Morrison, about how serious reading and writing may free a person’s mind though the body may be oppressed.

The pseudo-democratic argument that complex thought and expression are fit only for the social-economic elite is bigotry disguised as enlightenment, like so much of what is today called “identity politics” on the left and “populism” on the right, both of which uphold marks of deprivation as signs of authenticity or superior perception, and both of which regard so many of humanity’s treasures and pleasures as the property only of “white males” or “the global elite,” as you like; whereas my credo is not Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” but Borges’s “the universe is our patrimony.”

The semicolon, anyway, is not replaceable by the period, as the author of the above article argues. This idea is corporatist-totalitarian ideology that sees every individual as a fungible element of the labor process. The period separates, but the semicolon separates as it joins. Its push-pull suggests the tense relationship of the clauses it both marries and divorces. Christian Thorne, prefacing his own summa against a more rarified strain of elitist populism, one that favors the exclamation point, puts it this way:

It is through punctuation marks that even ordinary writing overcomes its own ingrained positivism, its tendency to reduce the world to rubble, static things and discrete events. Commas introduce relation to the simplest sentences, as periods do disjunction. Dashes and semicolons establish relation and disjunction at once; they sunder even as they join, which makes them the typographical face of dialectical thought.

Punctuation is often the last thing I do when I write. My tendency is to put a semicolon after every sentence to announce that each element of the text is both irreplaceably itself and part of a discernible if complex structure. (There is an implied social vision here.) Why should a period fall until that structure is completed?

Today we read with our eyes, not our ears, scanning blocks of text as they scroll past for keywords to inform us or, more likely, to support our pre-fabricated idea-identities; we collaborate with the system’s desire to be comprised of predictable component parts. The eliminationists of the semicolon, who want everything bullet-pointed, wish to aid this process. But I aim to disrupt it; I desire my writing to so arrest you in your scan that you must pause and read it again, or aloud. And if I fail, I will only try again tomorrow.

John Irving sometimes comments on the oddity that Kurt Vonnegut was his teacher, given their diverging ideas about semicolons. I’m sure Vonnegut was the wonderful teacher Irving says he was, but at the same period of my life when I was possessed by Irving’s novels, I was repelled by Vonnegut’s. Between the ages of 12 and 20, I started three and failed to finish any; I still haven’t finished one. I was personally affronted by their prose; they were written in an infantile idiom, by a man obviously capable of writing in other registers, so that I felt simply patronized. What does this man who addresses me with babytalk, or, worse, with crude drawings of anuses, think of me?

Irving, by contrast, with his brain-twisting plots and compound sentences, seemed to consider me adult enough to handle whatever came my way. It would be an immeasurable cultural improvement if we all began to have enough self-respect to be offended not by unfamiliar arguments or the treatment of painful subject matter but by oversimplification, condescension, and talking down.

I mentioned above the collaboration of certain modernists or modernisms with the standardization I decry, of which semicolon-eliminationism is a symptom. It was mainly the poets, philosophers, designers, and architects, not the novelists, who were responsible. Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner: each one is discernibly Dickensian. But then there was, as Irving mentioned, Hemingway, and before him Stein and Flaubert, to whom we might trace the MFA routinization of literary fiction. With all these things in mind, I conclude with another passage from Irving’s “The King of the Novel”:

And here’s another wonderful thing about [Dickens]: his writing is never vain—I mean that he never sought to be original. He never pretended to be an explorer, discovering neglected evils. Nor was he so vain as to imagine that his love or his use of the language was particularly special; he could write very prettily when he wanted to but he never had so little to say that he thought the object of writing was pretty language; he did not care about being original in that way either. The broadest novelists never cared for that kind of original language—Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville…their so-called style is every style; they use all styles. To such novelists, originality with language is mere fashion; it will pass. The larger, plainer things—the things they are preoccupied with, their obsessions—these will last: the story, the characters, the laughter and the tears.

“The laughter and the tears” is a bit much—despite my censure of Vonnegut’s scrawled asterisk-asshole above, I am reminded of crude humorists popular in my youth who scatologically mocked “the laughter and the tears”-style advertisements for Oscar-bait movies: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll hurl.” Nevertheless, Irving’s main point stands. A scientific ideology of progress applied to literary language serves the rationalization of all relationships, the confiscation of individuality, and the abolition of the psyche. Think before you delete that semicolon; they may be telling you to delete it because they do not want you to think very much at all.


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