Defending semicolons

Yesterday I reblogged a thing on Tumblr. It was a list of writing tips, many of which I agreed with, some of which I disagreed with but didn't outright object to. One of them, though -- a transphobic comment that Kurt Vonnegut made, disparaging semicolons -- I cut, and replaced it with a different piece of Vonnegut's advice.

I am pro-semicolons in fiction. I think they have a legitimate place in fiction writing; furthermore, I think the objection to semicolons emerges from a problematic trend in American literature of rejecting complexity of every sort.

There are, frankly, ideas that are best expressed through the use of semicolons. Not because they add new information, but specifically because they allow a writer to juxtapose two or more ideas without declaring an idea of the relationship between them.

For example, here's a phrase with a semicolon: "She was angry; she was tired." Using a semicolon allows you to give those two ideas equal weight, and to present them as separate ideas that nonetheless are meant to occupy the reader's experience of the narrative at the same time.

Other ways you can present those phrases all carry different meaning. "She was angry and she was tired" presents those states as specifically in harmony with each other. "She was angry but she was tired" presents them as explicitly contradictory. In the 'and' sentence you might expect her to lash out because she's out of patience. In the 'but' sentence you might expect her to want to lash out, but decide not to bother for lack of energy.

"She was angry: she was tired" implies that she's angry because she's tired. "She was angry, she was tired" implies she's tired because she's angry. You could maybe achieve a similar effect with an em-dash: "She was angry -- she was tired." And I do, also, like em-dashes quite a lot. But they carry more energy, more abruptness than a semicolon, so if you wanted that sentence to sound exhausted you'd lose something by losing the semicolon.

In a recent post for the Tor/Forge blog, John Scalzi talked about his non-use of semicolons in his recent murder mystery, Lock-In:

There’s another thing; semicolons create a certain sense of pace in one’s writing. There are few sentences with semicolons that could be described as “punchy”; indeed the presence of semicolon suggests rather the opposite. Sentences with semicolons are languid, or unhurried, or even draggy; they take their time to get to their point. Often that is the point; a writer who knows his or her craft knows there are times when a point will be better made by going a circuitous route. But when every sentence starts taking the long way home, even without you intending it, that’s a problem.

He explained that, while semicolons played a major role in his writing up to that point, they weren't appropriate for the kind of suspense that a murder mystery demands. And, certainly, there are books that are better for containing no semicolons, or would be better if they contained no semicolons.

But I think the categorical proscription against them stems less from a sense of good advice, and more from a weird, fetishistic competition that the American writing tradition seems to be engaged in, that says: "How un-British can we possibly be, without actually using a different language?"

Hemmingway and e e cummings cut as much as they could from their writing to see what they could achieve with the minimum of adornment. Mark Twain and Stephen Crane took local dialect and vernacular to extremes. In The Elements of Style William Strunk and E.B. White turn what is pretty good advice for folks who want to go from English amateurs to functional communicators in the workplace into a religious canon of American writing instructions, from which deviation is, they give the impression, morally wrong.  And Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King talk about writing in a personal, local accent that sometimes sounds like they think you shouldn't ever use any words you learned after you turned 14.

I think this attitude is wrong. But more importantly, I think it's symptomatic of a trend in American narratives that says all complication is unnecessary complication. I mean, I don't think that people objecting to semicolons is the same thing as refusing to discuss complex, systematic issues like global warming or racism. But I think they both build from the same truism: that anything elaborate can be made simple, without losing meaning; that complexity is a form of dishonesty.

It's one thing to say that a lot of people use semicolons wrong; to say that it's hard to use complex structure to make effective points. I think it's a great idea to hand a copy of The Elements of Style to every high school student and say "Master this before moving past it." If a narrative can be written clearly and correctly without any sentences longer than ten words, then it's probably a bad idea to throw in elaborate stylistic flourishes.

But semicolons have a place in fiction writing. The solution to difficult realities is not to pretend that we'd all be better off pretending they don't exist.