Helena Writes #7: On semicolons, and feelings over rules

Helena Writes
Date Posted:
2/6/2020

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her seventh post, Helena reflects on semicolons, and how breaking grammatical rules is sometimes the result of an innate feeling about how words can be expressed and presented.

Thought on grammar

A semicolon has been used to punctuate complete thoughts within a sentence; it is somewhat arcane, I’ve thought, and been replaced by a period or an em dash (—).

The above sentence could also be written this way: A semicolon has been used to punctuate complete thoughts within sentences; though it is somewhat arcane, I’ve thought, and has been replaced, it seems to me, by the use of a period. Like this:

A semicolon has been used to punctuate complete thoughts within a sentence.  It is somewhat arcane, it seems to me, replaced by the use of a period—or even an em dash.

Or, like this:

A semicolon has been used to punctuate complete thoughts within sentences.  It is somewhate arcane, it seems to me, replaced by the use of a period. Or even an em dash.

A feeling germinates

I shopped for bean sprouts, looking here and there, market to market; there were none to be found. How would I make my bean sprout soup? I wondered—a recipe that has come down to my generation through three hundred years of soup-making Pittmans, from Ireland to England and Wales, before it crossed the great waters. Improvise, Helena, I told myself. Use lettuce.

(I could also search for seeds, I mused, but the likelihood of finding alfalfa seeds in the local supermarkets seemed slim somehow. Particularly since I hadn’t spotted any sprouts.)

If I do locate alfalfa seeds, they only take a few days to, well, sprout. That will mean postponing my soup-making party; a lot of telephoning. I settled on sending a group email.

This is my current understanding of semicolons, an understanding in process. No doubt there is a rule, understood by grammarians. But being, by nature, an artist and inventor—though that may be a default development due to the incapacity to internalize such rules and conventions—thankfully, what I do have is eye and ear.

Breaking the rules

Having no patience with rules and conventions, things codified to keep up with the writers and creatives of the generations, things necessarily in flux, subject to revision. There are and were those that use and used this lovely little mark with knowledge and art. Yet when I look at the writing, say, of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Adams, in their long correspondence, seem to obey no rules at all. They capitalize for emphasis, break off without periods! Their letters look like word pictures embodying feeling, the content of bedrock creativity. They were inventing to express themselves, it strikes me now, and I don’t feel so odd—a right-brained functioner in the left-brained forum of rules.

Rules are made in schools, after the fact of creating.

So here’s what this exploration about the use of semicolons has turned up for me, it turns out. Rules are made in schools, after the fact of creating. Language changes and evolves, shaped by the spirit of the people of a time and place. An extraordinary finding! The act of writing has brought me to an understanding: It’s the content—the language follows. It’s the feeling! Rules will never touch human feeling. That has to be discovered, and ways to express it have to be listened for. That’s the unique value of the act of writing itself, I think now, an act so mysterious it defies rules of punctuation, or any rules at all. The semicolon and all of writing is a reach for marks, line pictures to express what might otherwise be inexpressible.

Do you ever eschew grammar in your writing because the “right way” doesn’t feel right to you? Do you use semicolons? What did you think of Helena’s reflection on them? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts

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