I’ve been thinking about semicolons. I hate them.
The Story of Doctor Dolittle, which is actually a favourite of mine, has four in the first three paras. And these are not long paras.
I suppose it’s an old book. Some of the punctuation seems odd by modern standards – especially the following comma, which thrusts itself into a sentence like a geek gatecrashing a group photo:
He lived in a little town called, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh.
I have literally no idea what it’s for. But it doesn’t really matter. This post isn’t about commas. It’s about semicolons.
Take a look at the following para from the opening chapter.
The house he lived in, on the edge of the town, was quite small; but his garden was very large and had a wide lawn and stone seats and weeping-willows hanging over. His sister, Sarah Dolittle, was housekeeper for him; but the Doctor looked after the garden himself.
The semicolons don’t really achieve anything, other than to remind us that Lofting is a man who numbers them among his writerly minions. I love his books – really and sincerely – but I do not love his semicolons.
Nowadays we use them much more sparingly. If you look at The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or The Magic City, you’ll find semicolons all over the place. In both cases, they’re right there in para one. Whereas to find one in a modern kids’ book, you’d have to hunt around. In fact, you might struggle to find one at all.
Looking at the three books we’ve published so far, I don’t think they have more than three semicolons between them (I can testify – having just checked the final PDF – that City of Meteors doesn’t contain a single solitary one – but I do recall a surprisingly elegant one popping up in The Astronaut’s Apprentice).
I’m sure I’m not the only person who isn’t a fan of semicolons. In my case, the problem was overexposure. When I did English at high school, we were told we’d get marked up for showing we could use them. There was this mystique around them. Only the crème de la high school crème could pull one off (or so it seemed).
So, being young and full of myself, I used them like crazy.
And I mean like crazy. I couldn’t craft a clause without immediately and elegantly tossing in a related one, and whacking a semicolon between them. I used semicolons so much that I was this close to buying a spray can and tagging public property with them. And nowadays, like the ex-smoker who smoked himself sick before quitting, I wince at the very smell of one.
The exception is when people use semicolons to separate list items that already contain commas. I think that looks really smart. I do it myself all the time.
For what it’s worth, my favourite punctuation mark is the em dash. If you use Amazon’s “look inside” feature on The Astronaut’s Apprentice, you can see two in the very first sentence.
Anyway. I said there’d be rants, and that’s a rant. At least it was relevant!