I’m still reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves and I love it. I can’t put it down on BART. I squeeze in just one more paragraph before starting work. Today I read all about the history behind colons and semicolons.
I thought back to the first time I used, really used well, really used correctly, the semicolon. Ahhhhhh. It was Freshman English 101 at UNC. David, that was my TA. David, the name embodied a Greek god. He embodied a Greek god. A mountain man from Boone, via way of the beaches of San Diego, ranches in Montana, other locales I could only dream of. He wore faded blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. His blonde hair encircled his head in tight ringlets. His blue eyes penetrated whatever, whomever, he looked at. He was the most exotic man, the most exotic person, I had ever met.
He had the practice of passing out sample compositions, asking us to read them, then challenging us to pick out the one, the two mistakes. I was torn. Should I give into my inner desire to identify the error, to embrace my language geekiness, to the mutual exclusion of popularity in class? Should I? The class was small; in the end I didn’t care. I couldn’t stay away from the pull of the language. I raised my hand. “Yes, Lori?” “Well, the second to the last paragraph contains a split infinitive.” He smiled; I had identified it correctly.
Pre-David, I didn’t know the correct usage of semicolons. I used them indiscriminately. As he pointed out. One day in his office, I remember it well, the sun streaming through the windows, the cool air of an autumn day in Chapel Hill, he dissected my paper with me. “What are you trying to say here? Do you know how to use a semicolon?” I thought for a moment. “Actually, no, I don’t.”
“You can only use a semicolon when connecting two complete thoughts.” He pointed out my errors. Pointed out where colons were appropriate, where commas should be inserted, where my lovely semicolon could rest peacefully.
I’ve felt a certain smugness since then. I don’t think most people know the correct usage of semicolons; I feel a special calling to insert them into my writing. I notice when others use them wrongly and think of David, his blue eyes staring at my composition, “Do you really know how to use a semicolon?”