Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Punctuation Love Story

Ben Dolnick has a nice piece in the NY Times that explores his relationship with the semicolon.  What began as disdain, based largely on the crass advice of Kurt Vonnegut, later blossomed into something approaching love:

Their textbook function — to separate parts of a sentence “that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences” — has come to seem like a dryly beautiful little piece of psychological insight. No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle.

And so, far from being pretentious, semicolons can be positively democratic. 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? And then (in the case of William James) another? And another? And one more? Which sounds, of course, dreadful, and like just the sort of discourtesy a writer ought strenuously to avoid. But the truth is that there can be something wonderful in being festooned in carefully balanced bags; there’s a kind of exquisite tension, a feeling of delicious responsibility, in being so loaded up that you seem to have half a grocery store suspended from your body.

I am torn on the use of semicolons in legal writing.  With especially complex ideas, I do not know if it is wise to hand the reader another bag.  But then again, semicolons can create a nice flow within paragraphs.  For me it comes down to context, but context-based lessons are the most difficult to teach students without much experience.  Perhaps everyone needs to fall in love on their own.


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