Monday, October 11, 2010

Don't Semicolon and Drive

Last week, one of my professors asked us to do some peer-editing. We were put into group of three and were asked to exchange papers we had written in the past for other classes.

It started out innocent enough, that paper about mythopoetics. Everything was okay. I was learning about Wallace Stevens and about how he really likes poetry to the point of worshiping it... or something. It was interesting, even. I don't know a lot about Wallace Stevens. I was receiving an education just fine.

Until it came along.

Right there. Right in the middle of a sentence where it didn't belong.

A semicolon.

"He is the angel between human thought and its association with the world; traveling between the poetic imagination and reality."

It looked that big to me, I swear. I stared for a moment. The person who used this semicolon had made a bold move. I circled the semicolon. I drew an arrow pointing to the second part of the sentence and wrote "this is not an independent clause."

And then I crossed that out. What if I was wrong? To cover my ass, I scribbled in "incorrect use." It would be vague enough to work.

I'm not really sure why, but once a person declares an English major, it's like they're under the impression that they've been issued a Semicolon License or something. If you're an English major, you can just put them anywhere you like, because you are smart and you read books. I read a lot of books and I am pretty sure I am never confident about when and when not to use a semicolon. I never got the memo than my status as English major made me a godly user of semicolons.

Oh, wait, because it doesn't.

Kurt Vonnegut once said "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

All a semicolon does is show that you are, or were, an English major, and that you feel that you have earned your Semicolon License. But that's a lie. Just don't do it. There is always a safer way.


And in conclusion, I give you The Oatmeal. Go there and learn.

7 comments:

Georgie said...

i thought you were supposed to use semicolons when you already have lots of commas in your sentence. well that's when i use them because my sentences frequently have lots of commas and if i don't use them things start to get a little nonsensical and then the people marking my essays tell me off for run on sentences and general rambling.

Vanessa said...

This is why semicolons are super tricky. Honestly, I'm not an expert. I think there are times when I distinctly know one can go in a certain place, but when in doubt I avoid it. I know semicolons are appropriate in lists that involve commas, though: example, "Boston, MA; Houston, TX; and Salem, NH."

And I seriously DO recommend The Oatmeal as a guide to their use. Funny AND helpful!

Bec said...

I'm doing a horrible academic writing unit in which we lose marks on each essay if we don't use a variety of different sentence structures soI have to use semi colons. they scare me.

Allison said...

I freaking love semicolons. Maybe it's because we have to use them in legal writing to let a person know that our thought isn't completely over yet and to reserve judgment until the period. But legal writing is generally terribly "bad" writing anyway.

fertilizr said...

I feel like semicolons are pretty easy if you take the time to learn about them, which really isn't a whole lot of effort. It's just like learning who vs. whom and lay vs. lie.

I do think that English majors tend to use them more often and more... wrong-ly? ha, than others, which is just funny.

Kelly said...

I love me some semicolons but I was an English minor and peer-reviewed a LOT of papers that used them for no good reason. But when you'd try to tell people why they were wrong, they looked at you like you were telling them pigs fly.

Reminds me of this quote:

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.
-Abraham Lincoln

Kelly said...

(To be clear, I'm NOT saying that misuse of a semicolon is the mark of a "fool." But just that if I don't actually know how to do something, or use something, I don't - misuse attracts more attention than not using something at all!)

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