Of Semi-Colons and Sandwiches

penguindictionaryAs a writer, once you get your bum on the seat, it is all too tempting to concentrate on the story, the creativity, the word count, the dreamlike moment when you go up to claim your award……Anything, anything but grammar. ‘Don’t they have a thing on Word for that?’ I am aghast, you charlatan! Not really. But you need to know enough to know whether you should ignore the grammar tool on Word and whether you know enough to turn off the bad grammar indicator all together. So this time, in the run up to more things pedagogical, I thought I would give you (and myself) a short punctuation lesson on semi-colons from the wonderful Penguin Guide to Punctuation.

It begins:  The semi-colon (;) has only one major use. It is used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The two sentences are too closely related to be separated by a full stop;
  2. There are no connecting words which would require a comma, such as and or but;
  3. The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

(The colon is most correctly and often used when a general statement is followed by an explanatory phrase which gives specifics. For example: Africa is facing a terrifying problem: perpetual drought.)

The semi colon, they go on to explain, must be preceded and followed by a complete sentence. The following example shows an incorrect use:

We’ve had streams of books on chaos theory; no fewer than twelve since 1988.

The use here is incorrect since the second phrase is not a complete sentence.

A correct usage (if not PC?) would be:

Women’s conversation is co-operative; men’s is competitive.

If you used the joining word, while before men’s you can use a comma instead of a  semi-colon

However (to tax your brain just a tad more), certain joining words such as however, therefore, consequently, nevertheless and meanwhile require a preceding semi-colon.

(Read all of the above three times and it will become magically clear).

The most famous correct example of the use of a semi-colon is:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Healthy Lunch Box

And that brings me nicely onto sandwiches. Semi-colons can be used to sandwich sentences together. But it’s far from those kinds of sandwiches the writing mother of schoolkids will be shortly. It is the best of times and the worst of times. The kids will soon be back at school and occupied but the amount of preparation and organisation that goes into getting the kids back to school is mind-boggling, literally. Books, uniforms, bags, lunches, labels, fees, it goes on and on. This year, my third child is starting school (1 left) so the preparation time is increasing exponentially. On Sunday night there will be sandwich making and of course now there is the ham controversy.

We have been informed that pre-packed convenience ham is in no way suitable for the tender digestive systems of our little cherubs. That’s why this Sunday I will be carefully preparing a boiled ham, from which I can cut juicy, nutritious slices to sustain the bodies and brains of my angelic, diligent children as they hang on every word their teacher utters.

(That reminds me, where I grew up, it was known as a hang sanwitch and was accompanied by a bottle of black tea wrapped in a tea cloth as the turf was cut, spread and footed back in the hazy August days when heat rose off the bog and when we came home we had to examine ourselves to see if we had succumbed to the blood sucking fangs of the sciathorn (tick). If anyone knows the correct spelling of that Irish word, let me know. It’s amazing how many of the commonly used phrases and words in the country do not exist in any dictionary or in an internet entry. Fedgeock is another one (clumps of a thick, dead sedge) or perhaps it’s my spelling.)

I digress. Ham is also, of course, ‘an inexpert if showy performance’. The phrase is admittedly used more for actors than writers. It could be applied to the kind of self-conscious writing we all begin with, the overwriting, the showy phrase we’re in love with but that adds nothing to the story. In the past year, but particularly over the last few months, I have been writing one short story after another. One of the things that I have realised is that we are never too far from cliché, and there are no new stories to tell. The secret is in using the right words that may have several nuances, all of which can enhance or illuminate the story, in using the right sounds and rhythms that reflect the pace of the piece, the mood of the character, in using objects and scenery to define characters rather than just being a backdrop.  If we do all this then we give the stories layers (like a sandwich) and these layers make the story meaningful and give it greater resonance with the reader. It is no longer just a universal story, it is a specific story with vibrant characters about whom the reader now truly cares.

So remember: Make sandwiches with the content of your stories;  the best sandwiches leave out the processed ham.

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