These days the semicolon, one of the least loved, least understood punctuation marks, barely ekes out a living between the period and the comma. It was not always that way.
Geoff Nunberg, a researcher at Xerox, and adjunct professor at Stanford University and a consultant on the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, has spent a lot of time thinking about the semicolon and its changing place in the world.
To understand the semicolon, said Mr. Nunberg in a recent lecture, you must first ponder written language in genera. Is it merely a way to transcribe spoken language or does it have its own character? For Mr. Nunberg, the answer is clear.
Written language captures things that spoken language never could. Does anyone know, for example, what a semicolon sounds like?
Consider the sentence "Order your furniture on Monday, take it home on Tuesday." With a comma, it means that if you order your furniture on Monday, you can take it home on Tuesday. "Order your furniture on Monday; take it home on Tuesday" is different, however; it is a double command. But sometimes you can't tell the difference between the two sentences simply by hearing them read aloud. You need to see their punctuation to detect the difference.
If you look carefully, Mr. Nunberg said, the world of punctuation has its own rules of power politics. Commas are the weakest, semicolons are middleweight powers and colons are superpowers. Look more carefully and there is even a ranking among semicolons.
There are the weak ones (replaceable by "and," "or" or "but") and the strong ones (replaceable by words like "since" or "because" or even by a colon or a period.) But there is a strict law governing all of them. If there is more than one semicolon in a sentence, one cannot dominate. They must all be the weak type. There is parity.
This law of non-dominance also governs the weakest type of semicolon, which Mr. Nunberg calls a "promotion" semicolon, a semicolon that would have been a comma if there were not already too many commas in the sentence. Here is an example: "He has written books on Tinker, the shortstop; Evans the second baseman; and Chance, the first baseman." In this sentence all semicolons are created equal, and they are all more equal than the commas.
There was not always such a restrictive, democratic order governing semicolons. Mr. Nunberg discovered that in the 19th century and early 20th century, semicolons were as loose and carefree as commas are now.
T.S. Eliot used what is known as the appositional semicolon: "the essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author's mind has subjected to a process of simplification."
Jane Austen used semicolons to introduce subordinate clauses. In "Persuasion," she wrote: "His good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment; since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own."
Mr. Nunberg even found writers who let their semicolons dominate other semicolons in the same sentence. In "Middlemarch," George Eliot wrote: "But some say, history moves in circles; and that may be very well argued; I have argued it myself." In that sentence, the second semicolon, working like a colon or period, dominates the first semicolon, which acts like a comma. How can she let that happen?
Did 19th- and early 20th-century writers sprinkle semicolons without any sense of propriety or limits? Or were there rules for semicolons that are obscure to us now? After looking at passages from T.S. Eliot, Henry James, George Eliot and Jane Austen, Mr. Nunberg at last discovered the old law of the semicolon: A semicolon that wants to dominate another semicolon in the same sentence must wait for the end of the sentence; and then it can act like a colon, trumping the rest; the last semicolon gets the last laugh.
From Think Tank by Sarah Boxer - The New York Times