The Ambiguous Power of Semicolons

One superpower of the semicolon is that it leaves it to the reader to intuit how ideas relate.

Dale Stromberg

Yes, a geek post. You already know from the title whether you want to read this one.

Now that nine tenths of you have fled to Facebook, I address the select few who remain. My argument is right there in my overdramatic title: that an insufficiently recognised merit of the semicolon is its potential for ambiguity.

What is this power? Like any good storyteller, I’m going to make you wait to find out. (Annoyed?) First, we’ll define some terms.

The Use of a Semicolon

One of the semicolon’s principal uses is to join two independent clauses without a conjunction. You already know this, but let’s clear up what an independent clause and a conjunction are:

Independent Clauses

The old trick is, if it could stand on its own as a complete sentence, it’s an independent clause. Example: “I am tired but feel better.”

“I am tired.” – This could form a complete sentence; it is an independent clause.

“Feel better.” – This would be a sentence fragment if set out on its own; it is a dependent clause.

Conjunctions

The two clauses in the example above are joined together by a conjunction: “but”.

Coordinating conjunctions (for, and, etc.) and subordinating conjunctions (until, whereas, etc.) tie together clauses, demonstrating how one relates to the other. For example, “but” in the example above establishes contrast. Obvs.

What’s a Sentence?

One gets the impression that, in modern commercial fiction, the definition of a sentence is “a string of text no longer than one printed line.” Keep it short! You’re competing with tweets!

Hoary stalwarts like me prefer to think of a sentence as being the encapsulation of a single complete idea

(The above definition will not satisfy partisans of the intentional run-on sentence; these headlong persons have no use for semicolons anyway.)

Under this definition, there is a tendency for sentences to get longer proportionally to the complexity of the idea you wish to convey. But even a long multi-clause monster is meant to encapsulate one idea.

This is a key point to my argument: (a) a long multi-clause sentence, and (b) the same content subdivided into shorter sentences, may convey the same information, but (a) and (b) will not mean the same thing. That the author has chosen to load this information into a single sentence signals that it is to be taken as a whole, as one idea. Sometimes you need the length to say what you want, as you want.

Joining Independent Clauses

If the thought you aim to encapsulate is complex, you may wish to write a sentence that contains two independent clauses. Here is an example, albeit not that complex: “I am happy. She is unhappy.”

How to join these two independent clauses? One way is with a conjunction, which requires us to decide on the relationship between the clauses. Let’s say we intend a contrast:

With a subordinating conjunction: “Although I am happy, she is unhappy.”

With a coordinating conjunction: “I am happy, but she is unhappy.”

Next, examples of how changing the conjunction alters the relationship of the clauses:

Until I am happy, she is unhappy.”

“I am happy, so she is unhappy.”

“I am happy, for she is unhappy.”

“I am happy, yet she is unhappy.”

Each conjunction makes a relationship plain: cause-and-effect, before-after, etc. The intended nuance is presented to the reader, crystal clear, a done deal. But…

What if you don’t want the nuance to be plain?

Ambiguous Relationships

As noted above, a semicolon can join independent clauses into a single sentence with no conjunction.

Example: “I am happy; she is unhappy.”

“Just convert the semicolon to a period,” scold the lobbyists bankrolled by Big Period. Ignore them! What the author has joined together, let no period put asunder. The fact this is one sentence, not two, signals to the reader our intent that these clauses form a single idea.

However, lacking a conjunction, the relationship between clauses is left unstated.

This invites the reader to wonder, “The author has joined these independent clauses into a single multipart idea; they therefore have some relation to each other; what is that relationship?” This is what I mean when I say the semicolon’s power is in imparting ambiguity onto a sentence. It leaves it to the reader to intuit how these ideas relate.

The Joy of Discovery, or (Wait for It) “Show, Don’t Tell”

Many take it as a truism that there is more aesthetic enjoyment (greater “engagement”) when the reader is allowed to intuit, from a description of Jessica’s outfits, that she is a sloppy dresser, than there would be if the author simply wrote, “Jessica was a sloppy dresser.” Show us her habits; don’t just tell us about them.

How many would be shocked to learn that the unassuming conjunction is, in fact, a stealthy tell!? But it is. It tells the reader how to understand the relationship between two clauses, rather than engaging the mind in understanding this.

On a level likely to fly below the radar of many readers, occasional semicolon use—to bring ideas into relation without spelling out that relation—can enhance the pleasure of reading in the same way: instead of spoon-feeding the reader, it can offer those clauses as puzzle pieces to slot into place.

So, up with the semicolon. Vive le semicolon. Fight me.

17 Comments

Luluo

Only a year ago, I informed my editor that I did not yet have the power to weild the almighty semicolon. Not only have I now come to an understanding of this strange punctuation mark in the intervening months, but this blog has given me a better understanding of its versatility. Bravo!

Oct-22 at 00:47

1910orange

I use semi colon a lot in writings. I don’t agree with people who tell me that semi colons, and even colons, should be removed and replaced with periods.

It’s different.

Oct-22 at 01:36

Harbinger

Thanks for this post. It is an interesting take and I enjoyed reading it. There are plenty of good reasons to use semi-colons. The Chicago Guide to Grammar or LeGuin’s Steering the Craft each list or demonstrate several others.

But I don’t agree that avoiding conjunctions is one of them. Nor does invoking the bugaboo of “telling” really convince me, since—like conjunctions or semi-colons—telling has its place, too.

I’d like to think I can take or leave any of them, depending on what the story needs in that moment.

Um, all except my emdashes, of course. You can have my emdashes whey you pry them from my cold—dead—

Best,
:-{D]
_Mark

Oct-22 at 03:05

1910orange

I’m assuming you mean your cold and dead skin cells.

Oct-22 at 11:29

Shayward

Great blog. I used to use semicolons mostly for variety. Then I just stopped. Maybe I’ll start using them again but with purpose this time.

Oct-22 at 13:31

Imjustdru

So, up with the semicolon. Vive le semicolon. Fight me.

I got love for the semicolon, but I can never get it right. :thinking:

Oct-22 at 14:25

Harbinger

No. :slightly_smiling_face:

Oct-22 at 14:34

1910orange

:grinning:

Oct-22 at 14:40

Jtorni

Great blog post, Dale! I’ve had a notion to this effect for a long time, but never quite managed to articulate it in a way that makes sense. I even tried explaining it to my husband once and he told me I was going mad. Haha!

the unassuming conjunction is, in fact, a stealthy tell!? But it is. It tells the reader how to understand the relationship between two clauses, rather than engaging the mind in understanding this.

This line encapsulates it perfectly! I’ll be thinking about this while I start hurling semi-colons at everything I write (and then diligently weeding them out again–I sense these fellas are best used in moderation). :wink:

Oct-23 at 10:10

1910orange

There is also the issue of how related the clauses are.

This is why a period is different from a semi colon, which is also different from a colon, which is also different from an em dash.

There is a lot of nuance in the language. Saying that a punctuation should not be used is a huge deal that I doubt many who simply echo the notion without evaluating will understand.

Oct-23 at 11:58

Dabbler

In grade school I zoned out on diagraming sentences and technical matters like “dependent vs independent clauses.” Now, as a writer, I’m crippled on the the concept of where punctuation marks should go. To me, comma placements are dictated by how the sentence sounds in my head, rather than some rule that people still debate, such as the Oxford comma. So, advanced ideas like comma vs semicolon are far beyond my comprehension. I do like the emdash and it seems more natural to me.
But your post does give me an intellectual idea of where the semicolon belongs, even if I can’t use it while in creative mode.

Oct-23 at 12:12

Redredrose

Many years ago, an editor told me not to use semi-colons in dialogue. So, I don’t.

Oct-24 at 01:24

Vivienne

The problem of the semicolon is that it’s difficult to know when it should be used and when it should not. Thank you for your post. It’s made it much clearer.

Oct-24 at 16:32

Sandree

Thank you for this enlightening post. It makes me feel like a toddler in the great sandbox of grammar. This gives me something to think about and consider adding to my toolbox.

Oct-26 at 14:55

Cwotus

I’m going to be as persnickety as I usually am … and crit the post.

You said:

Independent Clauses
The old trick is, if it could stand on its own as a complete sentence, it’s an independent clause. Example: “I am tired but feel better.”

“I am tired.” – This could form a complete sentence; it is an independent clause.

“Feel better.” – This would be a sentence fragment if set out on its own; it is a dependent clause.

I suggest that your example is incorrect. ‘Feel better’ is, in fact, an independent clause, or could be in a different context. Feel better. Drive safely. Be well. Those are all examples of imperatives, and as such are perfectly valid independent clauses. In that way, your example could add to the confusion of those who don’t already understand the concepts.

The implied “I” in the second clause just makes the example clumsy, to be blunt about it. I’d suggest an example along the lines of “I’m tired, but not that tired.” ‘Not that tired’ will never be an independent clause; there’s no verb, so it can’t stand alone.

You also missed a golden opportunity to introduce FANBOYS as a mnemonic device to recall the most common coordinating conjunctions. I’ll leave it as an exercise to those who may be interested (or have even read this far) to look up that initialism.

That you wrote the blog post at all is worth saluting. Long live the semicolon; long may it endure.

Oct-26 at 17:53

Vicktorya

Wonderful article, thank you. Semicolons are another tool to use.

I never thought about Big Period, but you’re right:
“Just convert the semicolon to a period,” scold the lobbyists bankrolled by Big Period. Ignore them! What the author has joined together, let no period put asunder."

Perfect analogy.

Nov-18 at 23:22

Jewells64

Agree with Redredrose. No semicolons in dialogue. The only place I use a semicolon is to set apart a dependent clause when the main clause has a series of elements set apart with commas. Compound sentences? Could be, but I don’t.
In case you want the lowdown, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) covers them in#6.43, 6.56, and 6.61. Lotsa luck.

Nov-21 at 17:03
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