Monday, July 13, 2015

Semicolons and Cormac McCarthy

Semicolons have it rough. Some suggest they are rarely necessary. Others insist they are never necessary. They have been characterized as the refuge of hacks. One considerable indictment of semicolons is that Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use them at all.

I admit to semicolon use. What I like about them is probably the same thing their critics disdain: the projection of uncertainty, of arguable timidity. On the left side of the semicolon the writer can set up a thought, and on the right he or she may ruminate upon it further, but in seeming collusion with the reader. “Olaf missed the midterm; the Maple Leafs were playing.”

They can be overused, but in addition to providing a fulcrum for a setup and punch, they also offer a tool for controlling the velocity of a complex sentence. If you were to break a complex idea into two sentences, you’d have a hard stop with a period and at the end of one idea; but the semicolon avoids that abruptness and lets you take your foot off the gas about halfway through the sentence. Kind of nice.

As to Cormac McCarthy, he doesn’t use quotation marks either.