The Mighty Semicolon

Second rule: don't take advice from creative writers. They aren't required to make sense.

Second rule: don’t take advice from creative writers. They aren’t required to make sense. ~ L. Michelle Baker

Few marks of punctuation cause so much angst as the semicolon. Compared to the semicolon, the comma is a mosquito, hovering over the sentence, buzzing, striking occasionally to suck the sanguinary syntax of its vitality and infect it with limpidity.

The semicolon, on the other hand, is the object of authorial navel-gazing. It forces us to ask deep existential questions of our sentences and their true, hidden meanings. Must I use a conjunctive adverb – that rich blend of antiquated Anglo-Saxon prepositions redolent of English judges in their powdered wigs – or will a simple coordinating conjunction do just as well? Is this phrase a compound of that phrase or a complement to the other? What precisely is the unspoken relationship between the two concepts I am ever so cleverly placing side by side with no explanation?

What an exhausting, demanding logical exercise the semicolon requires of the writer who dares to place that extra pixel in the center of the textual line; the single dot that in foregone days symbolized the introduction of a conclusion, the orator’s climax, the announcement of a logical proposition; the illogical full stop to the QWERTY home row.

No wonder so few of us dare to tread on its hallowed ground. For the consequences of its (mis)use are truly dire. Consider if you will the ruling of the Supreme Court of Tennessee in the case of The Tennessee Mining and Manufacturing Company vs. Cooper, Governor, et al, May, 1940.

Mine No. 7, Soddy TN. One of many mines forming the state's long economic tradition. Picture Courtesy of Mining Artifacts http://www.miningartifacts.org/Tennessee-Mines.html

Mine No. 7, Soddy TN. One of many mines forming the state’s long economic tradition. Picture Courtesy of Mining Artifacts http://www.miningartifacts.org/Tennessee-Mines.html

At that time, the Tennessee Mining and Manufacturing Company owned 54K acres of land, 20K of which the valuation of was in dispute. The Tennessee State Board of Equalization estimated the land was worth $160K, but the Tennessee Mining and Manufacturing Company alleged $107,600 was more accurate. So they sued, claiming that the valuation was subject to judicial review.

The Supreme Court of the State of Tennessee disagreed, based upon a semicolon.

Following is the statute in question, written in 1921, amended in 1923:

“Said state board shall have jurisdiction of, and it shall be its duty, to equalize during its session the assessments of all properties in the state, including any appeals which may be filed by merchants from the action of the superintendent of taxation. The action of the state board shall be final and conclusive as to all matters passed upon by said board, subject to judicial review; and such taxes shall be collected upon the valuation found and fixed by said board.”

Let’s take a moment to parse the second sentence. It looks a little something like this:

[independent clause] The action of the state board [of equalization] –

   – [imperative] shall be final and conclusive as to all matters passed upon by said board,

     ~ [conditional] subject to judicial review

; start of a new [independent clause]

[imperative] and such taxes shall be collected upon the valuation found and fixed by said board.

The semicolon in the statute was key to the Court’s ruling, which was that “the phrase ‘subject to judicial review’ [emph in orig] does not qualify the last clause of the statute.” The Court analyzed the placement of both (1) the modifier and (2) the semicolon.

(1) The Modifier – “subject to judicial review”

The Court determined that this phrase modifies “[t]he action of the state board shall be final and conclusive as to all matters passed upon by said board,” because that was the independent clause to which the phrase was attached by a comma.

(2) The Semicolon

The Court ruled that the semicolon made “the last clause of the Code section … imperative.” In other words, both the board’s valuation of the property and their collection of taxes thereupon were mandatory. Furthermore, the semicolon separated the modifier from the final clause, meaning that the valuation of the property could not be challenged in a court of law.

The moral of the story: gaze deeply my writer friends. Look directly into the soul of your sentence and allow it to reveal to you its own metaphysical essence, lest you find yourself subject to one of life’s two certainties – death, or taxes.

[12 Beeler 229, 140 S.W. 2d411. Supreme Court of Tennessee. Tennessee Mining and Manufacturing Company vs. Cooper, Governor, et al. May 18, 1940. Many thanks to John Hightower for the reference.]

Comments

  1. I have developed a new fear for the mighty semicolon. What a fantastic read, thank you!

    I was fortunate to have had a teacher in primary school that had no fear of her trusty red correction pencil. My creative writing assignments often came back looking like someone had slashed their veins over my pages due to run-on sentences and “wordiness”. I learned fast how to chop unnecessary words and to split sentences that had more than one thought.

  2. This I do not understand. My reading is, the valuation is subject to judicial review; the collection of taxes is not, but the taxes are only collected after the judicial review is complete. Therefore whatever taxes are paid are subject to judicial review; everything merely has to be done in the right order.

    • Ian – I felt the same way when I first read the decision. It took me a while to see the judges’ argument. They specifically state that the word “valuation” does not appear in the first clause, only in the second. I agree that it is a strange decision. To my knowledge, it has not been overturned by any rewriting of the statute.

      • Michelle, there is a further point here. A sentence should make one point. That means it must not contradict itself, thus the sentence, “All men eat meat, but no man eats meat,” is sheer nonsense. The word “valuation” may not appear in the first clause, but that clause only makes sense if the Board does value, because if it did not do that, how could the taxes be set? Therefore, if that valuation is subject to judicial review, the review MUST occur before the taxes can be collected. It is the collection of tax that is not subject to judicial review, or alternatively the statute is self-contradictory. That is a judge’s decision I find typical of legal nonsense. Judges should not be permitted to judge grammar!

        • Ian – Sentences, like people, are free to make multiple points, some of them contradictory. Else why would we have words like coordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, relative pronouns, or subjunctive adverbs? The sentence you offer is a word game, of the sort used by philosophers and theologians, asking the audience to contemplate different possible meanings of the words “men” and “man.” Its value (limited though it may be) lies in broadening our perspective.

          The sentences in the statute mean precisely what they say, not what we want them to say, wish they had, or assume they must have said. According to the statute in question, the Board “equalize[s] assessments.” The Court specifically ruled that the Board’s actions on “other matters” was subject to judicial review, but that its “valuation” was not. I am not an expert in TN state law or procedure. But if the Court saw a distinction between “other matters” and “valuation,” then I assume it had a reasonable basis for so doing.

          I’m sorry that we disagree on this, but I’m delighted to have the opportunity to delve further into the logic of the sentence and its punctuation. All my best – Michelle

          • On the specific question, why would we have words like coordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs, relative pronouns, or subjunctive adverbs? My answer is to qualify the statement, to put boundaries on the generality. True, we can make nonsense sentences for philosophical contemplation, but I don’t think they help most writing. And don’t be sorry we disagree; it is by disagreeing on such matters that we help clarify our thoughts. Also, I guess I enjoy disagreeing, so I suppose I should apologise for that – but I won’t 🙂 However, I enjoy your posts, and look forward to more.

  3. Jim Swan says:

    The moral of the story is K I S S — Keep it simple, stupid! The Tennessee legislators got themselves so caught up in their own legalese that even disinterested third parties can’t agree with what it means. Committees are unqualified to use semicolons!

  4. Jim Swan says:

    agree on — not agree with.

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