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Daylight began to forsake the red-room; it was past four o'clock, and the beclouded afternoon was tending to drear twilight. I heard the rain still beating continuously on the staircase window, and the wind howling in the grove behind the hall; I grew by degrees cold as a stone, and then my courage sank. My habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression, fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire. All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so; what thought had I been but just conceiving of starving myself to death? That certainly was a crime: and was I fit to die? Or was the vault under the chancel of Gateshead Church an inviting bourne? In such vault I had been told did Mr. Reed lie buried; and led by this thought to recall his idea, I dwelt on it with gathering dread.
(Jane Eyere)

The highlighted punctuation (after "I might be so") is a semi-colon in Gutenberg eBook, and a colon in Penguin Books. Which is right, or more proper in the context?

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  • 3
    The correct punctuation mark is the one used by the author. ;) – kiamlaluno Feb 11 '13 at 10:07
  • One rule I remember was using ; in a sentence when we have already used , before in the same sentecne. But right now, I do not have enough reference to support my theory. – Mistu4u Feb 11 '13 at 10:12
  • Grammatically and semantically, it doesn't matter. It could be a period (end stop) as well, and it wouldn't change the meaning or even the rhythm of the sentence. I would use a colon because the clause in bold explains why the narrator thinks that he or she was "wicked": All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so: What thought had I been having but just conceiving of starving myself to death? It's just a style choice. – user264 Feb 11 '13 at 10:13
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    Lack of an upper case letter strongly suggests (but doesn't dictate) that it's a semi-colon. – mcalex Feb 11 '13 at 10:16
  • I agree with Bill partially. I would go with a colon for exactly the same reason he would. But that helpful suggestion and explanation came after saying that "it doesn't matter", which was unhelpful. When the second clause explains the first clause, a colon rather than a semicolon or a period is the better choice. – Shawn Mooney Feb 11 '13 at 10:28
3

The Purdue OWL says:

Use a semicolon to join 2 independent clauses when the second clause restates the first or when the two clauses are of equal emphasis.

Use a colon to join 2 independent clauses when you wish to emphasize the second clause.

(Those are only two uses for those two punctuation marks; other uses are also discussed and explained.)

So, sometimes, the choice comes down to this: What does the writer want to emphasize?

Here's the original quote:

All said I was wicked, and perhaps I might be so; what thought had I been but just conceiving of starving myself to death?

A simpler paraphrase might be:

I might be a terrible person; after all, hadn't I just been thinking of starving myself?

or,

I might be a terrible person: after all, hadn't I just been thinking of starving myself?

It's a little hard to tell if the second part of this should be "emphasized," or if it should hold "equal" weight. It's a judgment call.

Moreover, there's another possible justification for a colon as well:

Use a colon after an independent clause when it is followed by a list, a quotation, appositive, or other idea directly related to the independent clause.

The "or other idea directly related to the independent clause" part seems pretty open-ended. In this case, the question that follows the first independent clause could fall into that category.

In short, the two punctuation marks have overlapping uses, and the usage guidelines won't always prescribe a clear-cut preference, or indicate that one would be correct and the other would be wrong.

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One useful way of thinking about it is that a semi-colon, like a comma, a period or question mark, is essentially disjunctive: it marks a pause at which the line of thought is broken or bent. It is a ‘hinge’ on which the sentence turns.

A colon, however, is conjunctive: it marks a pause following which the line of thought is resumed by an amplification or explanation. It is the final jump from the end of the diving board which impels the sentence to its conclusion.

My Norton Critical Edition of JE abstains from ‘definitive textual collation’, so I can’t tell you what Brontë really wrote. But I should say the colon is called for; what follows the point defines precisely the phrase immediately before it, which is a classic use of the colon.

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I would use the a colon when the phrase that follows explains, or expands the sentence before the colon.

After not seeing her for so many years, I was amazed to find that she still looked precisely as she always had: like Dan Rather.

After four days at the weeklong "Rippin' 'n' Flippin'" outdoor music festival, I realized three things: Drugs are bad, deodorant is good, and gophers are edible.

If what follows the colon is an independent clause or a quotation, then it should be capitalized, as in the last example I used. This is at least what it is done in American English; British English could have different rules about capitalizing after colons.
Supposing that the editor just changed the punctuation mark, the author used the semi-colon, as the following sentence is not capitalized.

Semi-colons should be used, for example, in compound sentences to join a closely related independent clause which is not joined by a coordinating junction.

I often blow my own horn, trumpet my achievements, and beat the drum for my career; it's my way of saying to the world, "Hey, I am fit as a fiddle, and I don't fiddle around or play second fiddle to anyone!"

In the sentence shown in the question, I would rather use the semi-colon.

 

The examples have been taken from Comma sense: a fun-damental guide to punctuation, Richard Lederer and John Shore.

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