Punctuation lives

Two sentences in my Saturday morning online reading remind me that some writers (or perhaps their editors) know how to use colons and semicolons.

The sentences come from Pete Hamill’s review of New Yorker editor David Remnick’s “Reporting: Writings from the New Yorker” in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. (Hamill writing about Remnick! How marvelous!)

Here are the sentences:

“Along the way, Remnick clearly learned another lesson: the best reporting doesn’t simply look at the world; it tries to see beyond the obvious surface. The reporter goes places the average reader never visits; the reporter must make that fragment of the world understandable with details.”

In the first, a colon comes at the end of an independent clause. What follows is an explanation or an elaboration. On top of that, Hamill has written two independent clauses joined by a semicolon in that elaboration. Then he writes a compound sentence: two independent clauses joined by a semicolon.

Why did he choose to use a semicolon instead of a coordinating conjunction? He writes, as good writers do, for the ear. He put his subjects and verbs together (just a couple of adverbs appear), and he uses subject-verb-object structure for three of the five clauses. He joins the thoughts that belong together, but he keeps the sound straightforward. A reader won’t become lost in those sentences. The punctuation helps.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.