The Semicolon is the Most Elegant of Marks
The semicolon joins two thoughts that deserve a tighter bind than just proximity. It creates a thoughtful and purposeful pause. It is optional, and therefore elegant.
Pedestrian writers opt for one of the pedestrian punctuation marks; pompous writers grab the dot-comma combo too easily. The best writers wield the semicolon carefully, respectfully.
Semicolon detractors—and there are many—consider it haughty and showy. They quote the otherwise great writer Kurt Vonnegut, who put his disdain for the mark in meaningless terms that sound like a schoolyard insult. “Transvestite hermaphrodite,” he called it in 2005. “Hermaphrodite” alone makes the point: The mark shares characteristics of of the comma and period, and because it is both it is neither. That’s its strength, not its weakness.
Vonnegut, a former journalism student, preferred simple declarative sentences for his prose. Fine. But other writers know how effective semicolons can be. Consider this from Charles Dickens:
Instantly Madame Defarge’s knife was in her girdle; the drum was beating in the streets, as if it and a drummer had flown together by magic; and The Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.
I often hear a contention among copyediting colleagues that “people don’t speak in semicolons.” Of course, people rarely speak punctuation at all. We sometimes hear “period” spoken aloud for emphasis, or “quote” and “unquote” to make it clear we’re using someone else’s words. Lately, the spoken “hashtag” has entered the language.
Semicolons can be found in speech. So can dashes and ellipses and parentheses. The pauses between like and disparate thoughts is much more intricate in spoken language. We need to employ all our punctuation options to reflect that.
The speech of Madame Defarge herself, as written by Dickens, uses this supposedly aristocratic mark:
I care nothing for this Doctor, I. He may wear his head or lose it, for any interest I have in him; it is all one to me.
Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities includes a semicolon, on average, for every 137 words. That’s a terrific rate for a book whose first chapter is titled “The Period.”
Of course, Dickens could have used periods for Madame Defarge. He could have used a period in the last paragraph of the book, which famously joins two thoughts about life and death far, far more effectively than wold be accomplished with the pedestrian period.
Rythmn and cadence are part of good writing, something made clear by novelist Will Self, quoted in a 2008 article on semicolons in the Guardian newspaper:
“I like them," he said of this elegant punctuation mark. "They are a three-quarter beat to the half and full beats of commas and full stops. Prose has its own musicality, and the more notation the better.”
To a sentence, it adds dynamics. And let's not forget that with an open parenthesis, it adds familiarity.