From our Rose Lake campsite we look across the water to Canada. It's the last night of our canoe trip, my last trip of the season. As the evening light dims, the flickering firelight illuminates my three friends' faces. Naturally our conversation turns to semicolons.
"I've been meaning to ask you," says Willie, "when a phrase or sentence enclosed with quotation marks is followed by a semicolon, does the semicolon come before or after the closing quotation marks?"
"The semicolon -- like the colon, question mark and exclamation mark -- comes after the closing quotation marks," I say, "unless it is part of the quoted material. Then it comes before."
"What about commas and periods?" asks Tom. "Do they go before or after?"
"Commas and periods go before closing quotation marks," I say, "regardless of whether they are part of the quoted material."
I peel a piece of birchbark from a log by the fire and use a burnt stick to write some examples:
The term for two sentences with a comma between them is "a comma splice"; the term for two sentences with no punctuation between them is "a run-on sentence."
"How many fish did you catch today?" he asked.
"Tell me," John said. "Did she really say, 'We're not going to hire this clown, are we?'?"
As I scratch out the words, my friends nod and say, "Ahhh."
"You know," says Greg, "I used to think semicolons were a clunky mark. I thought they were merely a heavy-handed way of separating items in a series. But over the years I've grown to appreciate the semicolon; I've come to admire its subtlety and grace."
Again I pick up my burnt stick.
"Compare," I say. "Which version more effectively conveys tension and drama?"
George was two hours late. Susan was getting worried.
George was two hours late; Susan was getting worried.
"What an exquisite mark of punctuation!" says Willie. "It's more than a comma, less than period, a mark that invites comparison even as it separates."
With the sound of a loon echoing from the surrounding bluffs, we sit in our circle of light, doing what men have done for ages: talking about semicolons.
Stephen Wilbers teaches seminars in effective business writing. His column appears on the first and third Monday of each month. Write to him at P.O. Box 19114, Minneapolis, MN 55419, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit his Web page at http:// www.wilbers.com.