2

This comes from The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald:

All I know is that I stood spellbound in his high-ceilinged studio room, with its north-facing windows in front of the heavy mahogany bureau at which Michael said he no longer worked because the room was so cold, even in midsummer; and that, while we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me, as if it were not he who had abandoned that place of work but I, as if the spectacles cases, letters and writing materials that had evidently lain untouched for months in the soft north light had once been my spectacle cases, my letters and my writing materials.

I have no idea why a semi-colon is used. We usually use it when a dot is appropriate, but in this case it's not, because it's connected to the very first statement, and thus is not an independent clause.

9
  • 2
    I think it is used in place of the comma that would normally separate two main clauses of a sentence. In this case there are lots of other commas marking off lists of nouns, parenthetical side-comments and other clauses. If the author were to put a comma between the two main clauses in the sentence, it might get "lost" among all the other commas, and the sentence would be harder to comprehend. So he put a semicolon in place of the "highest order" comma, if you can call it that.
    – Lorel C.
    Feb 13, 2019 at 1:56
  • 1
    The "rules" of punctuation are not rules of grammar; they do not even exist in the spoken language. They are conventions of written English mandated by style manuals. Different manuals have different conventions. What you are taught is what modern style manuals generally agree on. Skilled writers sometimes take the risk of ignoring style manuals. Feb 13, 2019 at 2:10
  • 1
    By the way, what is being connected are two subordinate clauses, which are not usually joined by ," and." The structure of the sentence is "All I know is that (a) and that (b)." I strongly suspect that Lorel C is correct that, given the deluge of commas in subordinate clause a, the author felt it necessary to use a semi-colon to indicate a new subordinate clause. Feb 13, 2019 at 2:16
  • 1
    It is not backed by any style manual I have used, but that does not mean that the style manual of the University of North Nowhere does not demand it. Of course, most style manuals would frown on such a straggling monstrosity of a sentence in the first place and so would never posit a rule for it. Feb 13, 2019 at 2:19
  • 2
    @repomonster Well I see what you mean. Trying to read up on rules for semicolons, I discovered that they can be used in place of commas in a list whose elements already contain commas of their own. I thought that was a roughly-stated rule that would cover your example sentence, but every grammar source I found stated it exactly that same way "... can be used in a list ....". Now the case we have here is not in a list, so I guess you may be right that this is not a correct use of the semicolon. However I do think that was the reason the author put it there.
    – Lorel C.
    Feb 13, 2019 at 2:32

1 Answer 1

1

I don't know of any style guide that would say a semicolon is appropriate.

The common uses of semicolons—separating two independent but closely related clauses or separating list items that already use commas—don't apply here.

Aside from breaking the sentence into smaller and more digestible pieces, there are a few things that could be done that would have it match common guidance.

(1) Use a comma, not a semicolon.

All I know is that . . ., even in midsummer, and that, while we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me . . .

(2) Do use a semicolon, but remove the that and comma after it—which would create a second independent clause, albeit altering the sentence slightly.

All I know is that . . ., even in midsummer; and while we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me . . .

(3) The reason a semicolon could be used in the second version is because it could also be a period followed by a completely new sentence that starts with and (yes, you can start a sentence with a conjunction, despite the myth against it).

All I know is that . . ., even in midsummer. And while we talked of the difficulty of heating old houses, a strange feeling came upon me . . .


Having said all of that, the author can do what they want. There are many highly acclaimed pieces of fiction that break with standard rules of grammar or punctuation. Whether this particular novel is highly acclaimed is another question.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .