Semi-Colon

December 27, 1993|By BARBARA MALLONEE

Shadows stir; the season shifts. As I sit in the first winter sunshine, reading the morning papers, the print rises up, coldly poised, perfected in a way that the writing I am next to read is not. In stacks of student essays, language flies across the open page as wildly as the last brown leaves across the campus quad. Pens in hand, the faculty gear up to rake the prose about, trimming a sentence here, planting commas there, carting off redundancy.

As winter chill sets in, I look at warm young faces and wish it were the semi-colon they yearned to learn. A point I think a fine point they think much too fine a point. They are still tilting at words, and even I have to admit that as an object of study the semi-colon seems obscure, its place in the path of paleography lost in the dust of time.

The mark was used by Greek grammarians in the schools of Alexandria. By the end of the 15th century, British pundits and three generations of Venetian printers named Manutius were using it and other punctuation marks to regularize pauses in print. For three more centuries, it flourished, even on rough American shores. In the 20th, if it has not perished in practice, in praise it is long overdue.

What kind of name is ''semi-colon,'' really? The mark hasn't the braking power of a colon and might be thought half of its worth were sectioning speech the sole function of punctuation -- but it is not. Like the question mark (?), the exclamation point (!), and the colon (:), the semi-colon (;) amplifies the power of the period (.). It has its peculiar purpose. Most punctuation marks arose as aids to elocution; the semi-colon serves not the outspoken orator, but the silent writer solitary at his desk. While speech streams forth like birdsong, rows of prose take slow root in the fields and beds and pots of print. Brought from the old world to brave the new, the imperturbable semi-colon upholds the virtues of cultivated thought.

It engenders a well-bred economy. Even in an age awash in information, a sentence is a dear commodity. Overseen by the semi-colon, the well-tended sentence can hold any number of things: ''apples, prunes, persimmons; linen and lace; pheasant, roast beef, goose; eggnog, brandy.'' Under the framework of a single sentence can also be gathered two or more sentences' worth of useful thought. Wrote, for example, Ben Franklin, ''When men are employed, they are best contented; for on the days they worked, they were good-natured and cheerful, and, with the consciousness of having done a good day's work, they spent the evening jollily; but on our idle days, they were mutinous and quarrelsome.'' Less capacious, more terse was Francis Bacon: ''Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New.''

A mixed blessing, to be sure. Adversity occasions the troubles that become our daily news. At home and abroad wars rage over civil rights, civic wrongs, guns and arms, forests, disease, the homeless, the infirm, the illiterate, the neglected, the abused, the unemployed, the poor. Writers have long arisen to address their contentious times. A tart Samuel Johnson could pen, ''I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding,'' but all writers work that harmony might grow.

With the swift stroke of pen or pencil, the semi-colon subdues strife. It does so not by stilling or ignoring opposition; within a grammatic arena, it coolly balances hotly contested views. Franklin D. Roosevelt owed to this small mark a great deal, for he distilled into one measured sentence the New Deal: ''The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we can provide enough for those who have too little.''

''Simplify, simplify,'' wrote Henry David Thoreau, who labored in the cold drafts in winter to refine a harvest of fruitful thought. ''The intellect,'' he argued, ''is a cleaver; it discerns and rifts its way into the secret of things. I do not wish to be any more busy with my hands than is necessary. . . . My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing as some other creatures use their snout and forepaws.''

As the first snow falls, the fall semester almost over, I look at young heads bent over rows of prose. Education is an investment their parents feel it prudent to make. Wrote E. B. White in One Man's Meat, ''School buildings are heated by wood stoves except the high school, which has a furnace. At the end of the year, the account stood: for fuel, $439.44; for teachers, $2,600.40. Thus, it costs one-sixth as much to heat pupil's bodies as their minds, minds being slower to kindle.''

At a time when too few have food and fuel for mind and body, young people have still the luxury of learning to cultivate thought. In a world where one man's meat is always another man's poison, the semi-colon survives each vanished era. It has great staying power for it knows the habit of accommodation. Under its classic tutelage, wit is expended, wisdom grows.

Barbara Mallonee chairs the Writing and Media department at Loyola College.

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