Comma or Semicolon?

We have looked in the past at what is called a balanced sentence (see an earlier post entitled Balanced and Parallel), and I recently came upon an example of one that can remind us about an important use of the semicolon. Here are two sentences from Percy W. Blandford’s The Art of Sailing (St. Martin’s Press, 1972). I have included the first sentence for context, but it’s the second one, with that comma before the conjunction but, which is of interest to us here:

It is possible to get very scientific about sailing and there are books devoted to the theoretical problems involved. Much of the advance of sailing is due to those who are interested in this branch of the subject, and for that we should be grateful, but this is a practical book and we are only concerned with how to sail, without bothering too much about the reasons behind it.

If you read that second sentence aloud a few times, you’ll hear its easy procession of ideas; it is measured and almost even in the number of words before (twenty-six) and after (twenty-four) the center point marked by the comma before but, and this structural precision is what accounts for its balanced cadence. The sentence works; it sails on (if you’ll forgive the pun) regally but lightly, the author taking his own advice not to get too scientific as he drafted a fine sentence.

But the scientific—the rules and the reasons behind them—has much to teach and much help to offer those of us who might not yet be able to cast ourselves so adroitly before the grammatical winds. The casualness and ease that we perceive in Blandford’s long sentence presumes in the reader some real degree of facility in handling a collection of thoughts as they arise, two of which (the advance of sailing and the fact that we should be grateful) are put in opposition through the conjunction to two others (the practicality of the book and its concern with how to sail). Enough reading and sensitivity to language will assure the safety of some as they make their way through this sailing sentence, but absent that experience, we might very well find ourselves scudding confusedly through its ideas.

Should we find ourselves adrift, the science of grammar can come to our rescue. We remember that the three chief marks of punctuation, the comma, semicolon, and period, rank themselves in ascending strength in that order: the semicolon, composed of a period over a comma, stands midway between those two other elements in the scale, and so it directs us to pause but not halt entirely as we proceed to gather the ideas of a sentence. There is, moreover, one set of circumstances, present too in the sentence we’re examining, which calls for the semicolon: when at least one section of a sentence has what is called internal punctuation of its own.

If we look again at the central point of the second sentence in our passage, we see one comma in the twenty-six words before the conjunction but and one comma in the twenty-four words which follow. The conjunction but is meant to put these two large sections in opposition to each other, to show the contrast between the science of sailing and the practicalities of doing it. Those two commas each constitute internal punctuation in their respective sections, and so standard rules—what we should be aware of not to slavishly follow but to take counsel from—would require a semicolon where the writer has chosen yet another comma. In using the same kind of punctuation to separate elements which have commas of their own, the writer is risking that readers will not see the contrasting elements clearly enough. The traditional rule precludes this possibility.

But for all that, we might nonetheless judge Blandford’s sentence a success because it achieves what good writing always aims at: the matching of style and content. Scientific sailing, he says, is not what he’s after, and so a more scientifically grammatical style might very well have clashed with the “broad picture of sailing” he intends the book to offer. Rules are not dictates, but some we disregard at our peril. Knowing the difference, like knowing the winds, is a matter of experience. “One of the fascinating things about sailing,” Blandford says, “ is that you can never finish learning.” We might very well say the same about the study of language.

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