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Dispatch from San Serriffe
July 14, 2012 2:06 PM   Subscribe

The semicolon sat there in my literary utensil drawer like a cherry pitter, theoretically functional, but fussy and unloved and probably destined for the yard-sale table. Semicolons: A Love Story [NYT]
posted by obscurator (47 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by louche mustachio at 2:12 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's a peculiar beast, the semicolon: a punctuation mark that many people, even otherwise quite literate people, never use. Ask them why, and they'll often tell you that they don't really understand what semicolons are for or how to use them; nevertheless, they seem able to read them with no problem at all.
posted by pipeski at 2:24 PM on July 14, 2012


Did I count correctly,but did the author only use his precious semicolon once in his article?
posted by Mojojojo at 2:30 PM on July 14, 2012


Semicolons are awesome; I like using them quite a bit.
posted by hippybear at 2:34 PM on July 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


What a perfect description:
To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, "here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another?"
As a programmer I end up using them a lot (they are the equivalent of a period in many languages). However we also have semicolon-deniers too.
posted by rmas at 2:34 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love semicolons; I use them way too often.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:35 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most people don't know when to use semicolons, it's a pity.
posted by Aiwen at 2:38 PM on July 14, 2012 [19 favorites]


“Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.”
— Lewis Thomas, “Notes on Punctuation,” "The Medusa and the Snail."
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:40 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Did I count correctly,but did the author only use his precious semicolon once in his article?

You counted wrong.
posted by languagehat at 2:41 PM on July 14, 2012


I thought semicolons had been replaced by "lol."

Or is that only on phpBB sites?
posted by mph at 2:45 PM on July 14, 2012


among other things
posted by obscurator at 2:46 PM on July 14, 2012


Somebody needs to talk to this guy about his excessive use of commas now.
posted by adamrice at 2:49 PM on July 14, 2012


Posting on MeFi has turned me into a serial abuser of the m-dash "—".
posted by benito.strauss at 2:53 PM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Semis are sexy.
posted by roger ackroyd at 2:58 PM on July 14, 2012


Oh, I use them; I use them all the time. I use them so much it borders on overuse; many times I've looked at something I've written, especially here, where I find I've used multiple semicolons, sometimes on consecutive sentences. It's actually kind of embarassing.

My favorite use for them is still that of a kind of higher-order comma in a list. Where, if you have items in a list that themselves are complex enough to have commas, you can use a semicolon on the list to make it clear where the lines are drawn between its items.
posted by JHarris at 2:59 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


My uncle had bowel surgery to remove some polyps, but in the end he was left with only a semicolon; he now uses a plastic bag to go to the bathroom.

;)


posted by spoobnooble II: electric bugaboo at 3:05 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


"The semicolon sat there in my literary utensil drawer like a cherry pitter, theoretically functional, but fussy and unloved and probably destined for the yard-sale table."

Much like the New York Times itself.
posted by boo_radley at 3:19 PM on July 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I use the faux m-dash -- this thingie -- way too much, and I am also a semi-colon fetishist. Do not ask me how many times I type "you're" as "you;re" out of sheer muscle memory. I blame Mavis Beacon.
posted by maudlin at 3:20 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you think semicolons are great, wait until you figure out the crazy shit you can do with colons.
posted by pokermonk at 3:35 PM on July 14, 2012


Obviously he isn't a programmer;
posted by sbutler at 3:40 PM on July 14, 2012


My approach to style: I like using multiple forms of punctuation; there are many ways to set things off for emphasis -- dashes and parentheses being two examples (although I worry that my sentences become difficult to parse).

I definitely prefer dashes and parenthetical comments to small tags for asides.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:44 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I adore semicolons;they bring the beauty of a connecting sigh to my writing. And,oh, ellipses...
posted by Isadorady at 3:45 PM on July 14, 2012


maudlin:

I love em dashes, too—the thing being, on Windows they're a real pain to type (which is why, I'm guessing, you simply use two hyphens). You have to hold down ALT, then type 1-5-1 on the numeric keypad.

On Linux, I have the Compose key set up as Caps Lock, which is otherwise not used. Compose, then hyphen, hyphen, hyphen gives me a perfect em dash every time.
posted by adoarns at 3:49 PM on July 14, 2012


My uncle had his semicolon removed and now he has to punctuate into a rubber bag.
posted by w0mbat at 3:50 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait—yes, that works! I have to use alt plus 0151, but it does work. I'm already used to using the numeric keypad for French accents—comme ça—so this isn't really a big pain.

Thanks, adoarns!
posted by maudlin at 4:06 PM on July 14, 2012


Yeah, no disrespect to Vonnegut, but he can jam it . . . ellipses, dashes and semicolons are the written equivalent of verbal half-stops, pauses, lilts--and other shit that is just otherwise difficult to convey via prose.

Additionally, go tell me what not to do and the Boston Irish in me reads: directions.
posted by eggman at 4:19 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


—? I've just gone ahead and bitten the HTML bullet and type &mdash;. Since I'm already using &amp;, &gt;, and &lt; already, along with <sup> and <small>, why not go all the way?

OK, it was a bit of a mind-fuck typing that last sentence. ALT+0151 you say?
posted by benito.strauss at 4:34 PM on July 14, 2012


ALT+0151 isn't universally convenient; those of us without keypads have to employ NUMLOCK to attempt that incantation.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:40 PM on July 14, 2012


JHarris: Oh, I use them; I use them all the time. I use them so much it borders on overuse; many times I've looked at something I've written, especially here, where I find I've used multiple semicolons, sometimes on consecutive sentences.

Me too! I've started over-analyzing my fondness for semicolons; is it some personal need I have to introduce or pre-explain things? Sometimes every other sentence in a message will have a semicolon, and I end up completely reevaluating my sentence structures. I figure, even if every semicolon was appropriately used, varying the way I say things probably makes me a more engaging writer in the long run.

I secretly fear that every sentence I write is just some topical variation of seven or so Mad-lib style sentence structures that I've internalized. A worrying amount of my Metafilter comments start out "I have to say," or "You know," or, worst of all, "Yeah..."
posted by redsparkler at 4:54 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, of course, I forgot the 0. I really do try to avoid Windows where possible.

ALT-0-1-5-0 gives you an en dash, by the way, if you want to punctiliously adhere to typographical convention when rendering ranges, such as "pages 34–38," or "dispensing with wives 2–4."

Fair warning: you can go crazy with this stuff, and find yourself even punching in ALT-0-1-4-6 in order to get a proper right-curling apostrophe, rather than the jack-of-all-trades straight typewriter apostrophe of standard computer keyboards. And then proper curling quotation marks—oh where does it end?
posted by adoarns at 5:43 PM on July 14, 2012


Fair warning: you can go crazy with this stuff, and find yourself even punching in ALT-0-1-4-6 in order to get a proper right-curling apostrophe, rather than the jack-of-all-trades straight typewriter apostrophe of standard computer keyboards. And then proper curling quotation marks—oh where does it end?

That way lies LaTeX.
posted by BrashTech at 6:37 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Semicolons have become indespensible tools in my shorthand conveyance of the fact that I may, in fact, be kidding.
posted by obscurator at 7:35 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a semicolon tattoo.
posted by dame at 9:19 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You do know that you can use cherry pitters for olives, right?
posted by pompomtom at 10:41 PM on July 14, 2012


dame, I also have a semicolon tattoo!
posted by jaksemas at 11:08 PM on July 14, 2012


Fair warning: you can go crazy with this stuff, and find yourself even punching in ALT-0-1-4-6 in order to get a proper right-curling apostrophe, rather than the jack-of-all-trades straight typewriter apostrophe of standard computer keyboards. And then proper curling quotation marks—oh where does it end?

with an xmodmaprc file:
(assuming a US pc105 keyboard)

keycode 133 = Mode_switch Multi_key
keycode 134 = Mode_switch Multi_key
keycode 10 = 1 exclam exclamdown
keycode 11 = 2 at EuroSign trademark
keycode 12 = 3 numbersign sterling U2039
keycode 13 = 4 dollar cent U203A
keycode 14 = 5 percent infinity UFB01
keycode 15 = 6 asciicircum degree UFB02
keycode 16 = 7 ampersand paragraph section
keycode 17 = 8 asterisk dagger doubledagger
keycode 18 = 9 parenleft leftsinglequotemark leftdoublequotemark
keycode 19 = 0 parenright rightsinglequotemark rightdoublequotemark
keycode 20 = minus underscore endash emdash
keycode 21 = equal plus multiply notequal
keycode 34 = bracketleft braceleft leftdoublequotemark guillemotleft
keycode 35 = bracketright braceright rightdoublequotemark guillemotright
keycode 59 = comma less leftsinglequotemark lessthanequal
keycode 60 = period greater rightsinglequotemark greaterthanequal
keycode 61 = slash question division questiondown


also the pedant in me desperately wants to point out that -- should really be a faux en-dash; em-dashes are three hyphens wide.
posted by tallus at 11:51 PM on July 14, 2012


Using semicolons doesn't show you've been to college; it shows you care about pacing and rhythmic nuance in your writing. They are terrific at making a long, involved sentence seem less breathless.
posted by Decani at 5:05 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


MS Word Grammar Check loves semicolons
posted by rottytooth at 6:51 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I rely heavily on semicolons. I hadn't realized they're endangered punctuation.

Regarding key combos and the like, the ease of typing such glyphs on Mac keyboards is probably one of the subtlest but strongest low level features that keep me wedded to MacOS.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:22 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


The writer's overuse of colons raises psychological questions.
posted by xod at 8:27 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a semicolon tattoo.

I would like to hear details on this. (Pic would be cool too, if location and modesty don't forbid.)
posted by benito.strauss at 11:08 AM on July 15, 2012


I've known people who take Vonnegut's advice about semicolons and use it to define part of their personality. Which I find odd; personality proliferated through punctuation? Maybe. I use them, when needed, like I use all punctuation. I try not to let it affect who I am.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:12 PM on July 15, 2012


"a great deal of Vonnegut’s advice sounds as if it was rasped between grandfatherly coughing fits"

Exactly. I take very little of Vonnegut's advice about anything at face value.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:47 PM on July 15, 2012


"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."
posted by benito.strauss at 9:02 PM on July 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


The semicolon sat there in my literary utensil drawer like a cherry pitter, theoretically functional, but fussy and unloved and probably destined for the yard-sale table.

Anyone who writes that sentence is overthinking it.
posted by Doohickie at 8:04 AM on July 16, 2012


I'm not sure if I love semicolons because of writing or because of programming, but I've always used them. I also love and use the em-dash, and there's a vague set of rules by which I will use one vs. the other. I think of em-dashes as a more visually arresting semicolon, strongly connecting two thoughts but with a full-stop pause. Semicolons have a sort of "stop and turn" vibe to me. I think of a semicolon as wanting to be a period AND a comma at the same time, like a policeman stopping one lane of traffic while waving another one through.
posted by lubujackson at 12:07 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


benito.strauss: ""There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind.""

Yep, that's one of the ones I was thinking of.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:37 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


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