Long, Luxurious Sentences; The Use of Semi-Colons

Kurt Vonnegut may argue that semi-colons only prove that you’ve been to college, but apparently Virginia Woolf never got that message. Her prose is littered with the things.

While the semi-colons are used with abandon, they do seem to serve a rhetorical purpose in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Namely: There is always One More Thing. Lighthouse is two stories juxtaposed–the story of Mrs. Ramsay, the prototypical supermom, and Lily Briscoe, the struggling artiste extraordinaire. Each woman is faced with One More Thing all the time.

Mrs. Ramsay is faced with her husband’s neediness, her son’s demanding of attention, her daughter’s rambunctiousness, and on and on.

Lily, the painter, is faced with interruptions, subjects who won’t cooperate, the demands of society to ‘be normal’, and on and on.

Throughout it all: semi-colons.

Each time one appears, it is in a list form, a turning form. It adds One More Thing into the mix. It also makes the day seem endless and exhausting. Vonnegut definitely had a point regarding the use of semi-colons. After a little while the reader has to re-read to understand the subject of the sentence.

However, in this book’s case, I could see the argument that they are a necessary literary device for revealing the sensation of the story’s day. (At least the first day, because I haven’t gotten to the second yet.) Sometimes it is satisfying to wallow in the language of it all. To just feel the endless sensation.

Besides, we can give Woolf a pass because she was writing before Vonnegut came up with that rule. (I’m not even sure what college Woolf attended, if any–I should look that up.) And anyway, she’s the Wild Child. If you told her there was a “rule” about semi-colons, I’m willing to bet she’d throw even more in.

What literary rules have you heard about and subsequently seen broken? Are you a Wild Child yourself? What writing ‘rules’ do you think are made to be broken?






3 responses to “Long, Luxurious Sentences; The Use of Semi-Colons”

  1. Tracy Edward Wymer Avatar

    I really don't use semi-colons, maybe once in a novel, perhaps twice, then I go back and axe them anyway, because I don't like them, and also I like to break the run-on sentence rule, can you tell?, because run-on sentences, when kept to a minimum, are part of the middle school voice, and if your MC is in middle school then why wouldn't you use them while writing in first person, by the way I've never written a run-on as hideous as this one, I hope you believe me.

  2. Debbie Avatar

    Sentence fragments. Use them. Lots.

    Well, I use them to break things up, or to show a characters thought process. But, as with anything, they can be overdone.

  3. Jenny Avatar

    Tracy–you know that I never noticed the run-on thing with MG until you pointed it out just now? You're so right on!

    Deb–I'm with you. Fragments. A lot. When I'm not doing run-on sentences like Tracy. =)

    I just sin a lot.

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