New Role for the Semicolon

3 0 1,356

Writing teachers today have good reason to concentrate on punctuation, as new possibilities appear (think emoticons) and combinations like ?! pop up every day. The semicolon, however, seems to get no respect, or very little. Some have long predicted its demise in English, arguing that it isn’t necessary to meaning and that English notoriously drops such items with regularity. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that the only use of a semicolon was that it showed that the writer had been to college. People seem so unused to seeing the little winking mark that its use caused a stir when it appeared in a New York City Transit public service placard urging passengers not to leave their newspapers behind: “Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.” Pundits rushed to comment, calling the writer—Neil Neches, of the New York City Transit Authority’s service information department—“erudite” and “eloquent.” This use of the semicolon, opined Harvard’s Louis Menand, was “impeccable.”

In “The Secret History of the Semicolon,” Thomas Westland chronicles the rise and fall of this punctuation mark:

This divisive piece of punctuation has been around in something like its current form for about 500 years. Its use grew rapidly over the seventeenth century, before peaking around the turn of the 19th century, from which time it has suffered a sad, controversy-flecked decline in popularity.

Over the years, it has been the subject of violent disagreement. And the word “violent” is no mere rhetorical flourish: this thing has human blood on its hands. Well-known and oft-cited examples include a duel in 1837 between two French professors over a colon/semicolon disagreement, and the execution of the New Jersey murderer Salvatorre Merra in 1927 despite his counsel’s claim that a semicolon in the jury’s verdict should have spared his life. . .

So which is it? Useful, elegant way to syntactical clarity, or the tattoo of a sententious show-off? The problem is that the semicolon is the substitute teacher of punctuation: although it can serve in almost every role when the usual candidates aren’t available, it isn’t really purpose-designed for anything. Although the defenders of the semicolon argue passionately for its ability to convey nuance, it can, oftentimes, be replaced with a full stop, a comma, a dash or a full-blown colon without changing much of anything.

But not so, say those involved with the Semicolon Tattoo Project, a movement “dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. Project Semicolon exists to encourage, love, and inspire.” On the organization’s website, they go on to draw an analogy, saying “A semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”
Project Semicolon 2.jpg

Commenting on an Upworthy article, writer Parker Molloy sums up what the little symbol means to her:

I recently decided to get a semicolon tattoo. Not because it's trendy (though, it certainly seems to be at the moment), but because it's a reminder of the things I've overcome in my life. I've dealt with anxiety, depression, and gender dysphoria for the better part of my life, and at times, that led me down a path that included self-harm and suicide attempts.

But here I am, years later, finally fitting the pieces of my life together in a way I never thought they could before. The semicolon (and the message that goes along with it) is a reminder that I've faced dark times, but I'm still here.

I can imagine the Semicolon Tattoo Project and its website making for strong classroom discussion, especially if paired with a good reading about the relationship between writing and mental health. It would certainly provide a new approach to punctuation and its potential relationship to our emotional and our writerly lives. So hats off to the Semicolon Tattoo Project—and to the much maligned punctuation mark.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.