Semicolon Abraham Lincoln’s “Little Chap,” Smart Page Of Charles Dickens

Semicolon Abraham Lincoln’s “Little Chap,” Smart Page Of Charles Dickens

With educated people punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it is a useful little chap – Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Noah Brooks in 1864.

Arup Chakraborty Updated: Saturday, November 25, 2023, 11:47 PM IST
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The semicolon, a strange punctuation mark, is a useful fine page, which we have seen in what Lincoln said in a letter.

However important Lincoln’s “little chap” may be, the modern writers give a wide berth to it, because they advocate for periodic sentences.

It is employed to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence. There are certain conditions for it. So it is difficult to choose the right condition. An author should have clear ideas of what he wants to write. Then he can employ the right punctuation marks.

When the two sentences are too closely related to be separated by a full stop, an author uses the semicolon.

The Devil, in the form of a snake, persuaded them to eat of this fruit; in consequence of which God condemned them and their posterity yet unborn, to satisfy his justice by their eternal misery – PB Shelley

The semicolon used before “in consequence,” has properly joined the two sentences. Had the poet used conjunctions, like but, and, or, the sentence would have looked ugly. The semicolon has played the exact role in joining two ideas.

It was the best of times; it was worst of times; it was the age of wisdom; it was age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity; it was season of light; it was season of darkness; it was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

The much-used quote has also taught us how to join ideas with the semicolon. Because all the sentences are closely related to one another, the conjunctions would have scattered the thoughts.

The semicolon is used when there is no connecting word which would require a comma – such as “and” or “but.”

I do not like to ask questions, and where I was brought up it was not polite – Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway.

Instead of the comma before “and,” had the author chosen the semicolon what would have happened. “I do now like to ask questions; where I was brought up it was not polite.” The thought process would have broken, because “where,” though an adverb of place has been used as subject, because the author has cleverly avoided mentioning the name of the place where the speaker was “brought up.”

The semicolon is used when special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

A semicolon can always, in principle, be replaced either by a full stop (yielding two separate sentences) or by the word and (possibly preceded by a joining comma) – Penguin Guide to Punctuation, RL Trask (page 42).

Dickens, however, did not use full stops to separate the sentences. “It was the best of times. It was worst of times. It was the epoch of faith. It was epoch of incredulity.”

Or he might have written: It was the best of times, and it was the worst of time, and it was the epoch of incredulity…”

The way Dickens used the semicolon suggests that he feels the two smaller sentences are more closely connected than the two above sentences. The vivid sense of the sentences, written at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, has been conveyed through semicolons. This is the reason why such sentences are rarely written in the English language. It is, therefore, clear that two complete sentences are separated by a semicolon.

Therefore, a good writer uses the semicolon in a place that is called a run-on sentence.

There seems to be reluctance to use the semicolon, though it is a useful piece of punctuation –Theodore M Bernstein, Dos, Don’ts & Maybes of English Usage.

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