THE SEMI-COLON IS THE BEST

The Big Question: Claire Messud believes the semi-colon allows writers to reflect the complexity of life's experience

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2014

Among the many different kinds of people in the world, there is one in every family who packs the station wagon when going on holiday. Sometimes there are two, which can lead to conflict. In my family, unless my brother-in-law is in town, there’s just me. If I say so myself, I’m a mean packer. The aim is not to waste a single square inch of space, to fit in absolutely everything that makes a holiday fulfilling and successful (including tennis rackets, back issues of the TLS, extra beach towels and dogs), while still ensuring that the driver can see out of the back window. If you renounce this last, packing is much easier, of course; but then, as I see it, you’ve failed.

So, too, among the many different kinds of writer in the world, there are those of us who see the sentence as rather like a station wagon. In compiling the sentence, efficacyor, more precisely, precisionis important; capacity is important; and clarity is important. This kind of writer, at least, doesn’t think in little stoppered declarative sentences. It isn’t like that. Not really ever. Perhaps for some people. But not for us. For those of us whose thoughts digress; for whom unexpected juxtapositions are exhilarating rather than tiresome; who aim, if always inadequately, to convey life’s experience in some semblance of its complexityfor such writers, the semi-colon is invaluable.

Many have complained of it (Kurt Vonnegut perhaps most famously); others (such as the Jameses, both Henry and William) have embraced it. Arguably, many of us don’t know how to use it. But if you think of this punctuation mark in musical terms, as a crotchet rest, then you may better understand its particular usefulness. A full stop is a minim rest, time enough for a full breath, in and out, whereas the semi-colon affords a briefer pause, a pause for emphasis, or for clarity, or just to get your thoughts together.

Vonnegut complained that semi-colons were “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; but the blinkered flippancy of his comment is of course absurd. Whatever else you might say about transvestite hermaphrodites, you couldn’t say they represent nothing (besides, how could there be such a thing? A hermaphrodite could never be a transvestite). So, too, with the semi-colon: its subtlety may please only a minority, but for those of us who see the pointthe semi-pointnothing else will do.

What is the best punctuation mark? Vote here in our online poll.

See also: Rosie Blau on punctuation—a very short history; Johnny Grimond thinks the comma is unmatched; Ali Smith marvels at the ampersand; Julian Barnes makes a plea for the exclamation markNorah Perkins loves the dash and Kassia St Clair favours the ellipsis

Claire Messud has taught literature and creative writing at Kenyon College and Johns Hopkins. She is the author of "The Woman Upstairs"