As last week’s blog went down so well (over 800 reads), I’ve decided to divert into a little more about punctuation – hoping for a similar reaction. This is something I wrote a while ago about how I see the difference between colons and semi-colons.
In other news, Patience, my novel, has been shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2020.
MODERATION, IF NOT KINDNESS
I used to be very hardline about this; my stance being that a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a colon and a semi-colon is like a gardener who can’t tell the difference between a conservatory and a shed.
But when you’re hardline in any way, you risk getting caught out according to your own strictures.
So, before anyone does point the grammatical or green finger, I’d like to say that my approach has softened – and that I know there are ways of writing without using either colon or semi-colon; and so writers who avoid them entirely, because they think they’re crap, don’t need to know the difference.
I’ve seen twitter threads recently, in which young writers take turns expressing their contempt for semi-colons and all who use them. They are quite inventive in their invective.
My view is this: we don’t need fewer punctuation marks, we need more. I’m very fond of the dash, but would also (without being affected) like to have other options.
And what I tend to assume is that every single resource that writers of the past have come up with, including every single word in the Oxford English Dictionary, may – at some point in my writing – be useful to me. I don’t set general bans on anything.
I can imagine narrators who are best expressed by a semi-colon addiction. They’re not punctuation Moseses, not men like Hemingway or Kurt Vonnegut (very anti), but they organise their thoughts and forms of expressing them in a more shed-like way.
What is true is that semi-colons make lots of readers feel awkward and, perhaps, inadequate. They’re not quite sure that to do with them. So if you’re trying to write for as big an audience as possible, then you should probably find other ways of getting stuff into your sentences. Probably by writing shorter, separate, more direct sentences.
COME INTO THE GARDEN, MAUD
However, for those writers that would like to get a grasp, in non-grammatical language, here’s my best attempt:
If the sentence is a house with a garden, then the colon is a conservatory and the semi-colon is a shed.
This conservatory, I should add, is built on the back of the house and entered directly from the living room or the kitchen; it is being used as a greenhouse; the shed is at the bottom of the garden; not a huge garden, though.
Let me explain a little more ; or try to.
Both the colon and semi-colon are storage devices; each allows the writer to get more stuff into the sentence; just as I’m using them in this sentence. But they work in different ways.
The colon is lead up to by the whole of the preceding sentence, depends entirely upon it for support, and when you reach it you pass swiftly through it – like the door into a conservatory. Inside the conservatory, after the colon, everything is neatly arranged in rows, on shelves, for visibility and ease of use: flowers, cuttings, packets of seed, spraycans, etcetera. (Etcetera is probably the equivalent of the cat-flap.) (The cat is, of course, irony.)
The semi-colon, like the shed, is an independent structure that can stand up by itself; it is separated from the house my a short walk; it too contains stuff that needs to be stored (tools of various sorts; flowerpots, both empty and full – for example, of wintering bulbs; gardening gloves and those old shoes that aren’t good for anything else; the lawnmower) but what that stuff is isn’t so easy to make out from outside; the arrangement is more higgledy-piggledy, but that’s how some people like to store things, isn’t it?
So, there you are. Easy to imagine, easy to remember – c, colon, conservatory – s, semi-colon, shed.
Exercise: Try to write a sentence (or two or three sentences) that can be punctuated three ways – with colon, semi-colon and without either.
Let’s move on.