You could argue that looking to Evelyn Waugh for instruction on using semicolons is somewhat like reading Stephen Hawking to brush up on your physics: not advisable for the absolute beginner. But semicolons aren’t really as difficult as quantum theory – in fact, once you know what they are there to do, they are not difficult at all. Nevertheless, Waugh’s examples aren’t the easiest to explain, so we’ll look at some simple instructive examples first.
One way to think of a semicolon is as a beefed-up comma, fulfilling many of the same functions with a bit more force and authority. It is used, for example, to separate longer items in a list, or items which themselves contain commas:
There are three people in the waiting room, Doctor: a large man in pyjamas smoking a pipe; a young woman – she looks familiar, but I’m not sure why – with an unmuzzled dog; and your mother.
It can also be used to join two complete sentences together into one, somewhat like the way a comma and coordinating conjunction will join two independent phrases into a compound sentence:
Two simple sentences: The car’s not starting. We’re going to have to take the bus.
A compound sentence: The car’s not starting, so we’re going to have to take the bus.
Compound sentence with semicolon: The car’s not starting; so we’re going to have to take the bus.
A semicolon is a more distinct division than a comma, but – unlike a full stop – retains the sense of a connection between what is on either side of it. You’ll notoce that the comma is accompanied by a conjunction, ‘so’, but the semicolon needn’t be – it is merely implied. This is one of the reasons some writers lke to use semicolons, as a way of implying a relationship between two sentences without reducing and fixing the relationship to a conjunction, allowing writing to be as subtle and oblique as our speech often is:
The car’s not starting; there’s a bus-stop up the road.
Semicolons are particularly useful in joining longer sentences together without having to repeat conjunctions, or clutter up and confuse the sentence. This, for example, is clumsy:
The car has always caused me a lot of trouble, and cost me a lot of money for that matter, so I sometimes wonder if life would be simpler without it.
But this is a lot better:
The car has always caused me a lot of trouble, and cost me a lot of money for that matter; I sometimes wonder if life would be simpler without it.
Waugh’s semicolons work both to arrange clauses neatly and to connect the ideas of the four (yes four!) constituent parts together:
When the war broke out she took down the signed photograph of the Kaiser and, with some solemnity, hung it in the men-servant’s lavatory; it was her one combative action; since then she has had her worries – income-tax forms and drink restrictions and young men whose fathers she used to know, who give her bad cheques, but these have been soon forgotten; one can go to Shepheard’s parched with modernity any day, if Lottie likes one’s face, and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.
Practise writing sentences with semicolons. If you’re up to it, have a go at a long inter-connected passage like Waugh’s.
Note: Andy’s Writing Tips will be taking a short break next week, and returning at the beginning of the next. Happy reading and writing until then!