Friday, 24 September 2010
Today, I explained the awesome power of the semicolon to my ten year old students; I felt the time was right.
If I achieve nothing else as a teacher, I hope that I've played some small part in triggering the resurgence of that most undervalued and misunderstood of punctuation marks. So elegant; so versatile; so addictive; so intimidating.
And I mean intimidating; if I write a letter of complaint I never fail to include a couple of semicolons. My reasoning is that, as it seems that most people can't quite remember what they are for, when they see one in your writing they immediately assume you are well educated, intelligent and not to be trifled with. This is, of course, rubbish. Any tit can use one without too much effort at all; I don't know much more about grammar than what is required to teach ten year old children. However, I have found the little semicolon to be devastatingly effective; it is the quick flurry of jabs before you deliver the knock-out right hook.
So far, my trusty semicolon has delivered a full and frank apology from a major car hire company and a no-questions-asked payout from an insurance company in cash, to name but two and not mentioning the scores of quailing and intimidated people at the sharp end of some pointed grammar.
So, get involved! Join independent but related clauses! Create lists!
Just think of the semicolon as a more cuddly and less severe full stop. You could just join two sentences that you want to group together. For example:
Just think of the semicolon as a more cuddly and less severe full stop; you could just join two sentences that you want to group together.
Isn't that nice? So graceful and sleek. I love 'em.
The top tip I give my students is this: think of a sentence that consists of two clauses joined with the word 'because'. For example:
I feel sick because I have eaten too many chips.
That sentence is made out of two smaller potential sentences, "I feel sick" and "I have eaten too many chips". Either could exist on its own. If you take out the 'because' that is holding them together and swap it with a semicolon it looks like this:
I feel sick; I have eaten too many chips.
So much more distinguished. The 'because' trick, as we call it, is pretty much foolproof and rarely goes wrong.* Your writing immediately looks more sophisticated and you look more learned; people take you more seriously and are more likely to do as you say.
I get the kids at school to go home and ask their parents how to use a semicolon; the answers that come back are always very entertaining, and the salt-of-the-earth kids in my class love being able to out punctuate the older generation. Anyone of my generation (I'm 35 and a product of the creative writing, anti-grammar fads of 70s and 80s education) is unlikely to feel confident about using one. In fact, many language experts worry that it may soon disappear altogether. We could soon live in a world where the only echo of the semicolon's glorious and debonair history is the cheeky wink symbol I've used as the title to this post. That would be a shame and a real loss. Witness how mastering the semicolon's simple rules is quite a thrill to young kids; they suddenly feel like they are in control and even masters of their often baffling and frustrating mother tongue. I love to see bad lads that are so often reluctant to get into writing suddenly get a bad case of semicolon fever: "The ball hit the net; the shot was unstoppable".
The Americans love a bit of the semicolon (although they too are worried about its future) and we could learn a thing or two from them by getting them back out of the punctuation box, blowing off the dust and employing them to devastating effect. Just be careful: one can easily overdo it (as I have intentionally done here by way of illustration) and look like the worst kind of sanctimonious grammar bully. Less is more: it's all about considered and effective timing.
Use semicolons; they make you sexy.
*Please note that there is absolutely no way that you can use a comma in place of the semicolon in that example sentence. Commas can never join sentences. If a full stop could work there, a comma never will. That would be a comma splice, one of the few offences along with treason and drawing spectacles on the Queen's face on stamps that is still punishable by death. At least that's what I tell children.