The days of Virginia Woolf are long gone. Her musings are too dilatory for this century and her cherished semicolons belong to the era of the clothes prob and mangle.
Many writers have decried this bastard child of the comma and the colon. George Orwell, a permanently contemporary mind, told his editor that the semicolon was an unnecessary stop and that he would contrive to do without it. He was right.
Yet, its worthy and indispensable parents faultlessly fulfil their roles. Its mother, the comma, provides an essential breath or pause in a sentence, clarifies meaning, separates concepts, transforms obscurity into sense. Its father, the noble colon, informs us of what is coming, emphatically amplifies a thought. There is no praise too extravagant for these duties brilliantly preformed.
But the semicolon?
It attempts to express a pause slightly longer than the comma. Or to relate two ideas. And does neither well. Its unwelcome intrusion assaults the eye and judders the mind.
This elaboration of the workmanlike comma is merely the stuffy emissary of the dash or a vapid allusion to the colon. Neither fish nor fowl.
None of this bothers the public servant or local government official, the manager of an institution or a university factotum. Mediocre minds use the thing to appear recondite. It helps them cloak their specious, muddy thoughts in defensive ambiguity. Which might not matter except for the semicolon's major flaw.
As Barthelme pointed out, it is "ugly as a tick on a dog's belly." The redoubtable Gertrude Stein also disparaged it. Are such views merely pretentious?
Have you not eyes to see? The thing is a flyspeck on the page.
Someone recently remarked that a contemporary fop's desire to be fashionable had transcended his sense of the ridiculous. Brave, because people have been crucified for stating the self-evident. And, if our instinctive attributes included a sense of design, then this barnacle slowing the voyage of communication would never have appeared.
So, next time your finger strays to that perverse key on your keyboard, pause - pause: or pause...
The sensible alternatives are there. None offend the eye or the subvocalisation in the mind. All are efficient, direct, sensible, exempliary.
Does it matter?
As sages point out: everything matters, nothing matters.
So yes! It matters.
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