Friday, October 07, 2005

Americans and Semicolons

My wife and I were talking about this last night at dinner. I am not joking. Pause celebre

5 comments:

Tom said...

I am not a grammar expert, far from it, but don't they misuse the semicolon in the second paragraph? "Had midnight been closer and the bottle emptier, we might have taken him literally; but the point still floated within the grasp of sober minds...." I thought semicolons were primarily for connecting two independent clauses without a conjunction, except when making lists. If I'm right, and I'm sure I am not, the semicolon in that sentence should be replaced with a comma, or the "but" should be removed.

More to the point: I think Americans eschew semicolons because of the Hemingwayian influence. We like short direct sentences, methinks.

Maple Sugar said...

According to Strunk and White, you are grammatically correct: http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk.html#5

However, writers will take license with this rule as they will with the rule "don't start a sentence with a conjunction like 'but' or 'and'". In other words, the "but" in that sentence should not, strictly speaking, start a sentence or an independent clause. But writers break that rule all the time; it's because they usually do know the rules. Also according to Strunk and White, one must first know the rules to break them. The semicolon in this sentence is used for impact, which it achieves, subtly.

I could't read the whole article because I don't subscribe (though I'm tempted because I love this stuff, or can't you tell?), but I actually think that really, most people eschew semicolons because they don't know even that tidbit of grammar you recalled, because grammar is rarely actively taught anymore. I always tell my students that correct and stylish use of the semicolon will invariably impress a prof, because of how rarely it's done.

Tom said...

I have no problem with starting a sentence with a conjunction, and I understand that the 'but' after the semicolon was not bad writing, per se. However, an article about the forgotten semicolon ought to follow the rules more closely. In fact, by technically using the semicolon incorrectly, don't they indicate why it is rarely used anymore? Doesn't it go counter to their purposes? For all of their literary flourish, shouldn't they have been, in this case, more Catholic than the pope, and dogmatically followed the rules of using the semicolon?

Maple Sugar said...

Or they could have been showing that it ought not to be quite as intimidating and doctrinaire as people perceive it to be. I'd probably know more if I read the whole article, but that was my impression from the introduction.

Stephen said...

I do not use them. I like short sentences-- the shorter the better. The double-dash fits my lifestyle.