There’s a nice little essay by Ben Dolnick over on the NY Times site about his attitude to semicolons; how he tried for years to stop using them because Kurt Vonnegut told him to (Vonnegut described semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”), and then started using them again because another literary hero, William James, exploited them extensively. Semicolons are, to Dolnick, beautifully expressive of thinking:
It?s in honoring this movement of mind, this tendency of thoughts to proliferate like yeast, that I find semicolons so useful. Their textbook function ? to separate parts of a sentence ?that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences? ? has come to seem like a dryly beautiful little piece of psychological insight. No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle.
I have a little syntactical obsession of my own – parentheses. My first drafts are littered with them, and I have to do a fair bit of weeding (and I do mean weeding)?on subsequent drafts to get rid of them. I don’t quite know why. I think they might be a symptom of an inability to concentrate, a tendency to wonder away from the main thread. I know I do this during conversations a lot, skipping away on some tangentially related thing while my interlocutor frustratedly tried to get me back on topic.
But my fear is (like Vonnegut’s was about semicolons) that I’m using them to “show I’ve been to college.” That they’re an affectation designed to make me look clever and well-rounded. So I weed them out, and still they return (though without the anthropomorphic intent which I assign to them).