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.
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.]