J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Semicolon Party

Came across this sentence while reading Ilium by Dan Simmons:

The voynix padded out of the woods and a twilight view opened up: Ardis Hall glowing on its hilltop; white gravel paths and roads winding away from it in every direction; the long, grassy sward extending down from the manor house for more than a quarter mile before the greenway was blocked by another forest; the river beyond, still glowing, reflecting the dying light in the sky; and through a gap in the hills to the southwest, glimpses of more forested hills — black, devoid of lights — and then more hills beyond that, until the black ridges blended with dark clouds on the horizon.

Okay, give me a minute to count them.  Four semicolons.  Also a colon, two em dashes, and four commas.  Dan Simmons is rolling heavy on the punctuation on this one.  And I have to give bonus points for use of the word sward.

What’s my point?  I’m not sure that I have one, except that different authors have different punctuation styles, and that’s fine.  Dan Simmons is one of my favorite authors.  In more recent works, like The Terror, he’s more conservative with his punctuation (and uses shorter descriptive passages in general).  But I’m loving Ilium so far, and I loved Hyperion even though it’s downright florid in parts.

Kurt Vonnegut is famously quoted as saying semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”  I can see where he’s coming from.  The Simmons sentence above is more than my brain can handle in a single sentence (maybe it’s intended for mightier minds).  But it works in context.  And I like Simmons’s books more than I like Vonnegut’s books.

Maybe the sentence above is like turning up the amp to 11.  The music is so loud (and distorted) that you can’t hear the individual notes, but the wall of noise overloads your senses and has a strong impact on your mind.

My current writing guideline is to use no more than one semicolon per sentence.  I don’t hate them, like Vonnegut did.  They can really come in handy.  Vonnegut’s attitude towards semicolons strikes me as minimalist snobbery.  On the other hand, until I’m as experienced as Simmons (Ilium is his 22nd novel) I’m going to avoid using that much punctuation in a single sentence.  I might injure myself (or, more likely, the reader).


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