Once and For All: How to use a semicolon, with David Astle

· Thursday December 13, 2012

Meet David Astle: author, playwright, Letters and Numbers co-host, crossword cluer for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and self-professed “word nerd”. He knows his words. He’s the guy the dictionary keeps in its bedside drawer. In fact within a few years we might be calling English ‘Astlish’.

We asked David for some help with the biggest roadblock in sentence construction. The bane of all writers' lives, the Bane of all punctuation marks and the source of endless fiddley diddley debate: the semicolon. Or, as David insisted on calling it, the “Plastic monocle is cause for pause (9)”.

Hi D.A.! Before we start, should I be hyphenating 'semicolon'?

No, it’s all one word. Those words begin with hyphens and then lose their hyphens like baby teeth. We’ve had semicolons around for a good while now so the hyphen can go out the window.

Phew. Okay. So how many semicolons do you use before breakfast every morning?

Not a lot before breakfast but in the course of writing word columns and books I find that the semicolon is just tiptoeing into my prose (having spurned it for a long while during my twenties).

What do you use them for?

When ideas seem to cascade, one clause into another, to a point where I’m not quite prepared to cut off the flow with a brutal full stop. There’s a conjoined idea that is inherent in the two clauses and I want that idea to remain integral. So a little semicolon does all that wishing and hoping for me.

So how come a comma can’t do all the heavy lifting?

The comma is essentially a Give Way sign – you would slow down and check both ways before entering the next part of the sentence. Obviously the full stop is a Stop sign. But what the semicolon is, continuing with the traffic analogy, is like a flashing red light signal. So we are more compelled to slow down, a rarity in the traffic, but we realise that one road leading out will connect quite logically into the next road. There’s a dovetailing that goes on, different from a comma.

Can you give us an example of a semicolon being used correctly?

There is that phrase: “To err is human. To forgive is divine.” But you could actually expand that out into two sentences that share a semicolon, so: “To err is human; to forgive is divine”. You could argue that semicolons could be deputised by a dash, but in fact a dash often substitutes for a semicolon in a lot of modern prose. There is something quite subtle and charmingly old world about a semicolon that I think, in the way of things retro, is coming back into consideration.

What would be the most common example of semicolon misuse that you see?

When it’s an apology for a long sentence. Often when you see bad prose, there is no pause for breath and no fluency, no cadence in the prose, and that’s often a symptom of sentences that are overburdened. Some poor writers misuse semicolons as an implicit apology for unwieldy prose.

Do you have a handy shortcut for determining whether a semicolon is appropriate?

I do. Obviously, it has two roles, two key roles. One is in a list, where you see it most commonly. That might be a bullet-point list where semicolons end each item or in a list that’s presented horizontally, if you like, where the semicolon marks a new item. That’s, in a way, the more prosaic function of a semicolon. But the more nuanced, and I think the more feminine, use of the semicolon (because it is perceived by a lot of macho writers as being below them; it was a fetish for Virginia Woolf) is that idea of linking. It’s linking and relating partial clauses, but, importantly, these clauses don’t share a verb – they share an idea or there’s a cause-and-effect that resonates through their coupling.

What do you think about Kurt Vonnegut’s description of semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”?

I would have subscribed to Kurt’s view twenty years ago. I did model myself a lot on the semicolonist eschewers as an undergrad writer, and I’m talking about the likes of Raymond Carver, who certainly never did use them. I know that George Orwell, when he wrote 1984, deliberately sidestepped semicolons throughout that book and thought that punctuation didn’t belong in the year of Big Brother. But in the last while I’ve come to appreciate the very fine effect that a semicolon, used judiciously (I don’t overuse them), can have on your prose. It makes a reader realise a very subtle thread that can run between two ideas that may be perceived, initially, as being disparate. And that’s a lovely sleight of hand that you can introduce to your writing. It shows a narrative control over the story you’re telling, that you understand the fine filaments that can run between ideas and actions within your story. The semicolon allows you that subterfuge.

How about the other hand, on which you have George Bernard Shaw saying that a lack of semicolon use is “a symptom of mental defectiveness”? Is he on the money or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

Before we leave Kurt Vonnegut, I should say that there is something hermaphroditic about the semicolon. Their sexuality seems undecided: it’s almost as though they’ve got a mismatching top. But getting back to the Shaw quote, that really surprises me because what that shows to me is an intellectual snobbery, which I think is unfortunately strongly attached to the semicolon. It’s almost like a flag of your education. In fact, it’s surprising because Shaw, who did debunk snobbery, also was a playwright primarily, and I would think the semicolon is at least at home within written speech, that is within script. He’s possibly a victim of his era. There was a real vogue associated with semicolons a century ago, influenced by Woolf and Shaw and others, but there was backlash from the more pragmatic and robust writers, like Orwell and Vonnegut and Carver and even the popular writers now – they just don’t use it. But I believe that in more finely carpentered writing, there is a place for it and it must be used with restraint. Because to overdose on the semicolon is essentially to show a disregard for what its true gifts can be.

This has been very helpful; thank you for your time. By the way, I used a semicolon in between those two phrases. Is that correct?

You know what, I sensed that you did, because what a semicolon does is introduce a beat, which is different from a breath. If you just said “thanks for your time – it’s been great talking to you”, there would be either a colon or a dash in there. But you just gave your beat a little extra value, and that’s what a semicolon can do. The beat itself still connects the two utterances.

I got it! Thank you, David. Or to put it another way: “Vodka? Ah Nudity!”

Very good! I love it. I should have paid you the compliment of making a little anagram cupcake of your name, but that’s delightful, thank you.

Note: This is a transcription of a phone interview and every single punctuation error is our bad, not David's. Sorry, David.

This article is part of our new series 'Once And For All', made possible with support from Ketel One. Stay tuned for further posts in which local characters teach us how to do things properly.