Jerome Shea       October 12, 2009      Weekend Wonk

(This is an oldie, folks, but I hope it is still a goodie.)

On a local radio station these nights, a program called Talknet encourages troubled folks nationwide to call in for advice on legal and financial matters. It’s a good show: the pace is brisk; the host is knowledgeable and personable. What is especially heartening, though, is the inference one might draw from these proceedings, which is that life is for the tough-minded, those who can weigh their options and ACT. In these parlous, muddled times, this ethos deserves to thrive. Thus inspired, and chagrined over patchy success in teaching writing year after year, I was moved to act. Well, “act” is a bit strong, but I did slip into the following reverie.

Me: Hi, Council Bluffs, you’re on Talknet.

Caller: Hi, Jerry, this is Bill.

Hi, Bill.

And I really think you’ve got a super show.

Kind of you to say so. What’s your problem, Bill?

Well, Jerry, my grandfather died last year and left me this semicolon.

Lucky fellow.


Well, I hope Granddad has gone to a better place, but I mean you, Bill. Not many guys out there luck into free semicolons. How old are you?

Twenty-three. Uh, so anyway, uh, I was wondering if maybe I should just keep it as a collector’s item—you know, like an investment—or what are the rules if I use it? I mean, I don’t want to sound like a klutz.

Of course you don’t. But let’s get a few more facts here. What do you do for a living?

I’m a carpenter, plumber—sort of a general handyman.

So you don’t write for a living, obviously. Do you write much? Do you like to write?

Well, no, not a whole lot. But I never had a semicolon before. I was thinking maybe I could be a writer.

Now hold on a minute, Bill. Sure, it’s a temptation, this semicolon. But it’s also a darn tricky thing and I can’t say what’ll happen to you if you go off half-cocked to be a writer. It’s not only risky, but a writer needs a lot of capital, seed money so to speak: commas, apostrophes, parentheses. You don’t want to get too big too fast, eh?

Right, ok. So maybe just using it, you know, for fun?

Well, “fun” is a tricky word, Bill, and I have to tell you right off the bat that you could be in big trouble.


Trouble. Some states have laws against it. I don’t know about Iowa, but in many states you have to be thirty before you can use a semicolon. You could be looking at a year in the slammer and a ten thousand dollar fine.

Oh, wow.

“Oh, wow” is right, so check with a lawyer first. Or write the Iowa Attorney General; only cost you a stamp, which is cheap at the price.

Gee, thanks, Jerry.

No charge, Bill. Now: assuming you can use it, how do you use it? You stick that puppy right between two independent clauses that are close in their content, like “Albany is the capital of New York—semicolon—Springfield is the capital of Illinois.” Or…


Wait a minute, now—you really want to up the ante, you use it between clauses that are dramatically contrasting: “Harry dreamed of owning a Porsche—semicolon—he couldn’t even make the payments on a moped.” There are other uses, but let’s stick to those, ok?

Ok. I think I’ve got that. Maybe I could do that.

“Maybe” may not be good enough, Bill. Let’s see what we’ve got here, ok? We’ve got this twenty-three-year-old guy—a fine guy, I’m sure—who has a serious choice to make. Remember, we’re not talking commas here—we’re talking big league punctuation. You sock that semicolon away in a drawer, show it to friends once in a while: basically you sit on it. I figure that your friends’ estimation of you goes up 6% or 7% a year. Solid. No fluctuation, no risk. Sure it’s slow, but it’s solid, right? You can bank on it. Now: you use it in a sentence seven, eight times a year. Big appreciation, right? WRONG! First off, you’ve got the real risk of making a mistake and losing your shirt—everything, zilch, zero. Ok, but suppose you don’t; suppose people are somewhat impressed, which is, after all, what we’re after. Notice I said “somewhat.” Sure, you might make a killing, but suppose it’s only “somewhat.” You’ve got wear and tear—depreciation—on that semicolon. And then you’ve got the brain-breaking work of making up sentences for the thing. How much is your time and sanity worth? Friend of mine practically mortgaged his soul for a colon he got at a garage sale. Thought it was a real steal and it almost wrecked his life and his marriage. So think hard about that.

So, uh, what are you saying, Jerry?

I’m saying, Bill, that you can go for the slow but solid, or hold your breath and go for the big one. I’ve told you what I know. No, wait, I haven’t—not everything. When you fly around the country like I do, you sense drifts, changes, trends. Maybe it’s these times we live in: tough times, people jittery. Whatever it is, I don’t think people go for semicolons these day, not like you’d think. They are about as “now” as Granddad’s buggy whip. Dashes are the big ticket now and maybe—maybe—exclamation points. So my advice to you, my young friend, is not to beat your brains out. It just doesn’t figure, not on MY pocket calculator. Sit on it, Bill.

Well, ok, I guess I’ll go along with that.

You do that, Bill. And good luck, tiger. Hoo, boy. Hey, what a night. This is Jerry Shea on Talknet. We’re here; it makes our night when you’re here. Keep in touch. But you know what? Don’t call—write. It’s good practice.

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