As if contributing to a blog about classroom technology weren’t enough to prove I am a complete geek, lately I have found myself thinking about the semicolon in stray moments.
I try to teach students how to use semicolons or, alternately, how to avoid them if they aren’t sure how to use them, so it isn’t that strange that I should think of them. I see them placed and misplaced in student and professional writing often enough, and the evil done to the semicolon on the Internet is too heinous to mention.
Recently a colleague pointed me to a very entertaining poster about semicolons at The Oatmeal. I’m a big fan of the references to plague rats and party gorillas, but I have to draw the line at the discussion of pauses. The semicolon colon is not a half note between the whole note of the period and the quarter note of the comma. I hear this pause theory expounded by teachers and non-teachers alike, but it just ain’t so. In the history of English orthography there may well be a connection, but in current usage, the pause method is going to be about as helpful as a grizzly with a sriracha flamethrower.
While it would be nice if we only needed to know how to breathe to use semicolons, the unfortunate truth is that one has to be able to recognize complete clauses and extended items in a series to use a semicolon comfortably.
Which brings us to the largely ignored conjunctive adverb, the sun in the semicolon’s solar system. Even writer Ben Dolnick failed to give love to the conjunctive adverb in his otherwise lovingly constructed “Semicolons: A Love Story.” Conjunctive adverbs are those great words like however, although, nonetheless, and indeed that can be used to clarify the connection between two related complete ideas and that currently require the use of a semicolon. For example,
I am a huge fan of sriracha hot sauce; however, I would not want to meet a grizzly with a sriracha flamethrower in a dark alley.
This is where I think the semicolon shines, but again, me=geek.
What the conjunctive adverb (and by extension, the semicolon) really needs is a song like the one given to the conjunction so many years ago. Clearly, “And, but, and or, they’ll get you pretty far,” but we can express more specific connections between clauses with our friends the conjunctive adverbs, so sing it with me now:
“Conjunctive adverb, what’s your function? Connecting complete clauses with specific relationships.”
I’m sure the Schoolhouse Rock folks will get right on that.
Author Gill Creel