“To work together, words need help. They need connecting words, and they need punctuation. All methods of punctuation point the way for the reader, gathering, linking, separating, and emphasizing what truly matters. These marks are more than squiggles on a page. They are the ligaments of meaning and purpose.” –Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar, 2010.
At one English conference I attended, long into my teaching career, I listened to a speaker lecture about grammar, and teaching punctuation. I heard him say clearly that the semicolon was such a sophisticated piece of punctuation that it should not be used until students were in 12th grade! Sophistication, and more.
It differs from everything else–the comma, colon, period–yet incorporates each with a semblance of “uniqueness”: slow…explain…stop. All at the same time. But it’s a slow-stopper, not a full-stopper. A breather. (“Take a breath,” it says.) It is just so useful, so delightful, so important, and so special. Not to be easily misused. Roy Peter Clark describes it as an object that connects and separates at the same time, like a swinging gate, even: “a barrier that forces separation but invites you to pass through to the other side” (Glamour of Grammar). It is so special.
But it wasn’t always so special then as it is to me now. Memories of a time: My latest high school composition returned to me. The paper had red-pen bleedings…D31…here and there, with some comments written in the margins, from my teacher Father William Flaherty.
These bloody droppings, references to items in our writing handbook [which I still keep under pain of excommunication!], these codes, symbols, cryptic messages…D31…we would have to consult, we would try to learn well enough before the next theme or essay was due. It did not always work that way so easily. Repeatedly I would make those same mistakes/errors…D31…until…the semester ended.
HANDBOOK USED 1956-1960
New semester: same rules about that pesky semicolon. But more “sophisticated” examples for us to follow. For the next year. And the next. Then the end of 12th grade. Done with all the gobbledygook about punctuation and grammar rules. “All done. I’m putting that handbook away!” Then: College. More writing books, like The Elements of Style. Never did I expect D31 to follow me, to become such a part of my writing life. I was impressed with D31, impressed upon by D31:
“Use a semicolon rather than a comma before and, or, nor, but, and for in a compound sentence if–A Either clause is long–say, three or four lines. B Either clause contains a comma, colon, dash, or parentheses.”
That’s how I learned it; that’s how I used it; that’s how I taught it. So here I am, so many years later, out of the classroom, yet still concerned with punctuation and with the special semicolon.
How special? When I first read not long ago the words “Project Semicolon” in a blog posting, I thought it was another grammar site, part of the Common Core, intending to teach today’s students in elementary and high school grades the sophistication and beauty of using the semicolon. I became excited that there existed devotion still to punctuation, and especially to my favorite special mark. What a surprise when I clicked on the link: http://www.projectsemicolon.org/
PROJECT SEMICOLON is a global non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction, and self-injury. PROJECT SEMICOLON exists to encourage, love, and inspire. How fitting a sign the “organization” has chosen to symbolize the purpose of the group: “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve ended a sentence but chose not to. You are the author and the sentence is your life. Your story is not over.” The mark is most often seen or displayed as a tattoo, placed behind an ear or on an arm or wrist. It often represents the wearer’s past (the before), the present (the now), and what will or can be or should be (the future): a “slow-stopper,” not a “full-stopper,” indicating that there is more to come, more to the story.
So why would someone ever have a tattoo of a punctuation mark, for everyone to see? Is this like “wearing a heart upon a sleeve”? I believe so. To be very open about one’s emotions, not ashamed of the past, being honest; being loyal and truthful in the present, with no secrets; and perhaps never to forget the adventure of life to come, the future. Openness and honesty is risky business. It takes courage to admit, to “come out,” as it were. And the tattoo is symbolic of this. I like it, endorse it, support it, and support the organization.
There it is: I am a marked man. An impressed man. My tat indicates a story to be told; or it promises, better, that something lies beneath the embedded ink and the skin–perhaps some “in-depth” meaning. And that explanation is saved, remains, for another day.
© James F. O’Neil 2017