Semicolon addiction: It *can* happen to you

Image by: Lara Milvain cc by-2.0

I have an apology to make. I’ve been harbouring an atrocious secret. I’m addicted to semicolons. I’m not sure where it started. Maybe it was born of a sense of superiority. Maybe as a cure for grammatical homogeneity. Possibly I was just showing off. In the beginning at least. But it’s spiraled into something of catastrophic proportion.

According to the Oxford English dictionary, I have it all wrong, or at the very least, I have it way too often. I use my beloved semicolon with horrendous, eye-jarring frequency. It’s meant to be a shy creature, the debutante of the grammatical world. Seen once a season, and admired from afar. I’ve dragged it out so often it’s lost all its mystique. I’ve turned it into the syntactical equivalent of a hooker.

Common wisdom says the first step to resolving any problem is acknowledging it, so in the interests of moving forward: Dear reader, I apologise deeply for my long term, wanton, almost brazen over- and incorrect use of the semicolon.

I came across my, er, “issue” while re-reading some of my earlier posts and frankly, I was mortified at the frequency of my semicolon abuse. I’ve used them where I should’ve used a comma. I’ve used them where I could’ve used a dash. I’ve used them instead of full stops. Oh wait … legit usages, mostly. But … it’s possible I may have found one which would’ve been better replaced by a model railway and an ice cream sandwich.

One random study I found on the internet suggests I’d be better aiming for around three every 1000 words if I aspire to replicate classical English literature. My previous blog: 705 words, 10 semi’s. I’ve got some work to do. (Also: Must. Resist. Semi. Truck. Pun.)

So, how should I be using them? My newly-adopted friend Oxford’s online dictionary tells me:

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. Oxford 2017.

Easy! I can do this. I’m sure. Maybe. Well, it’s worth a try. Separation will be difficult, but with support I’ll make it.

Image by : JWilde. Modified by cc by-sa 4.0
How many cats and how many keyboards does it take to create a 700-word blog post with 10 semicolons? Image by : By JWilde. Modified by cc by-sa 4.0

Oxford’s been kind enough to spell out for me how I *should* be using this marvelously quirky-looking member of my punctuation toolkit:

It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences. Oxford 2017.

It goes on to provide me with solid examples. In the past I’ve been guilty of using “it”, the errant semicolon, in conspicuously prominent positions. I don’t think I’ve gone as far as doing something; like that, which is just outright incorrect – or as I prefer to think of it: A “typo”.

More examples, and even a possibly not-100%-legit PhD in semicolon usage, are offered over at Write With Jean. She explains semi’s are easy – there’s only two circumstances to use them. The first: Grab two closely related sentences, bang ’em next to each other, replace the full stop with the semi and de-capitalise the first word of the second sentence. To work up an example based on Jean’s:

The egg was cooked. I grabbed it out of the water.


The egg was cooked; I grabbed it out of the water.

And that’s the super-advanced example, where I can’t de-capitalise the “I”. Both are technically correct uses of the English language’s weird but lovely grammatical structure. Using the semi simply adds a little distinction to the prose. Makes it flow. Adds character. Makes a sentence a college graduate.

The second use, according to Jean, is a descriptive list containing commas. Rather than:

  1. A book, 300 pages.
  2. A chair, single-seated.
  3. Eight forks, silver-plated.


A book, 300 pages, a chair, single-seated, and eight forks, silver plated.


A book, 300 pages; a chair, single-seated; and eight forks, silver-plated.

Grammarly – an organisation which handles miscreant grammatacists such as myself with a calm, quiet aplomb and a bit of a ribbing – has even put together this 2-minute refresher on the semi for me.

They add a third usage – winkies. The cuter brother of the smilie.

Braised wonto…oh nevermind. Image by: J. Hendron cc by-nc 2.0

With the help of Grammarly, Oxford and Jean, I may be on my way to a cure for the common semicolon. And I’ve done my internal grammar police duty for the week. What’s that over there? Yeah, that’s my smugness strutting past in its shiny boots, skinny jeans and beard. Hipster-level smug. Go girl. (Hrmm, about that beard…)

Next on the chopping block: “wanton, almost brazen”, “conspicuously prominent” … Why use one word Lara, when eight or nine would do.

Fixing my grammar, one easy-to-spot problem at a time. It’s good to have goals, yeah?

More info:

Oxford Online Dictionaries
Write with Jean
And I love the guys and gals over at Grammarly’s Twitter account

“Do not ever let anyone tell you this didn’t happen”

It’s funny, a few weeks back a member of our cohort asked if anyone had some links they used to gather inspiration for writing. I answered quickly; nup – I just jot things down as I go, and use those. Maybe a sketchy memory of a dream, maybe something I’ve seen that day that’s inspired me.

And that’s about where my inspiration dried up. On the spot. It was like sharing that “secret” drained all my ideas. Until the weekend. Our media class had a field trip to Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Center. I’ve spent the last two days reeling through the lower end of my emotional repertoire.

It’s hard to fathom, even after 75 years’ analysis, what actually happened in Europe during the second world war. War itself is baffling enough to my generation; I was born at the tail end of Vietnam, and haven’t ever faced conscription, let alone actual participation. A skirmish here, another there; and two in the same place 10 years apart is the closest we’ve come in my lifetime. But nothing on the scale that ended oh-so-close to three quarters of a century ago.

I was lucky enough, though, to be “old” enough to have the chance to speak with my grandfather, CD Crellin, about his experiences in WWII. It was a blustery afternoon, and we stood at a large picture window in my family’s farmhouse lounge and nattered. Well, he nattered, I listened. He talked in hushed tones; as if speaking quietly of events somehow made them less fearsome. I was a writer – well, journalist – back then; and I kick myself to this day that I didn’t take down what he’d told me. Like Grandad, it’s lost to the foibles of time.

All I can gather now is a dry collection of his service records via (online) sources such as the Australian War Memorial and our National Archives. It’s a poor substitute, but in my youth I neglected to record his thoughts, so it will have to do.

One of our experiences during the weekend’s JHC visit was viewing a video our lecturer had made a few years ago with Phillip Maisel OAM, a nonagenarian who has taken the time, care and foresight to record thousands of survivor testimonies for the center.

Mr Maisel has gone to extraordinary lengths to record the memories of witnesses to that tragedy, to help ensure its events are never forgotten. It would be wonderful to think that maybe also one day some sense could be made of the massacre via these personal remembrances; but how can you make sense of the insane?

We were privileged, and I mean that sincerely, to have the opportunity to hear holocaust survivor Charles German speak. He didn’t “have a script”; and spoke from his heart. His tale of meeting, by chance and years later, two other child survivors of the same camp and their method of assessing their own truths – “if two of us have the same memory, we believe it to be true” is scientific enough for me. I’ve built my own childhood memories in a similar fashion; recounting stories with friends and family, finding similarities and amassing a fuller picture of our shared experiences.

What struck me hardest in Mr German’s address was the subtle, but enormous anger that crept into his voice when he spoke of holocaust denial. “Do not ever let anyone tell you this did not happen.” Delivered with quiet, but thorough disdain. A delivery only the truthful and the righteous could sustain. I agree with my classmates who have since written, questioning how there could be any doubt over the veracity of the holocaust and its tragic outcome for so many minority groups in Europe, not just Jewry. That it happened is bad enough; to pretend it didn’t is as horrific as the events themselves.

It’s almost too late now to gather much more first-hand evidence of WWII. The very youngest at its outbreak are now entering their eighth and ninth decades. We are out of time. Speak with these people; learn what they saw, feel what they felt. And record it – somehow – for following generations. It’s our way forward.

And: “Do not ever let anyone tell you this did not happen.”


More info:

Jewish Holocaust Center, Melbourne
Australian War Memorial records search
National Archives of Australia service records search

p.s. This is a wall of text by design. I do not own copyright to any images of the holocaust, and to use ‘found’ images which may or may not be authentic I believe risks disrespecting the happenings in Europe 75+ years ago.

A search using the twitter hashtag #ALC203 will return images taken during our visit on 30 April 2017 by others. I couldn’t stop shaking long enough to focus a camera.