Why semicolons are lovely and colons less so
I love semicolons. I probably use too many of them, because of how incredibly flexible they are; how they loosely tie together loosely related ideas; how you can use them for lists. I often use them this way in my journalism, only to have the copy-editors rip out every usage, and instead put in periods. Barbarians.
I was pleased, then, to run across Lewis Thomas’ paean to the semicolon, in this excellent blog post by Maria Popova quoting from Thomas’ essay “Notes on Punctuation”. As Thomas writes:
I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.
Nailed it. I use too many colons, too, though I actually agree with Thomas when he argues that they’re kind of … preachy:
Colons are a lot less attractive, for several reasons: firstly, they give you the feeling of being rather ordered around, or at least having your nose pointed in a direction you might not be inclined to take if left to yourself, and, secondly, you suspect you’re in for one of those sentences that will be labeling the points to be made: firstly, secondly and so forth, with the implication that you haven’t sense enough to keep track of a sequence of notions without having them numbered. Also, many writers use this system loosely and incompletely, starting out with number one and number two as though counting off on their fingers but then going on and on without the succession of labels you’ve been led to expect, leaving you floundering about searching for the ninethly or seventeenthly that ought to be there but isn’t.
Sadly, we’ve lost a lot of great punctuation over the years. Back in 1996, Nicholson Baker — in his book The Size of Thoughts — wrote about the many forms of punctuation favored by Victorian writers in England that nobody uses any more, including the colash (which looked like this :—) and the semi-colash (which looked like this ;—).
I love the idea of including these even-yet-more-complex pauses in the thoughtstream of writing, though wow:—I can’t imagine how my copyeditors would react if I busted one of those out.
(CC-2.0-licensed image of “semicolon art” courtesy the Flickr feed of Mauricio Balvanera)