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How to use a semicolon

I am confused over a sentence from The consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton.

... ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.

  1. What are the things that don't belong to the favourable conditions? Are they

some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence

or

bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence

  1. For future study, what is this construction called, if there is a name for it?(so that I can study this in more detail by myself)
  • Off the top of my head, a semicolon is stronger in the degree of separation than a colon, but not as strong as a period. Sometimes writers use a semicolon to hint that the two sentences are tightly related (when joining two sentences with a semicolon). Sometimes writers use a semicolon to break chunks in a sentence, usually when just a comma may lead to confusion because of the existence of other commas. – Damkerng T. Feb 19 '16 at 2:59
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I believe that the way the semicolon is used in the quoted passage is actually technically wrong, and that is some of the source of the difficulty. I had to make two goes at it to parse it, myself.

As used, there is an implicit "ask yourself" right after the semicolon. We might re-write the example:

... ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms. Ask yourselves whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.

To answer your question #1: neither of your proffered choices is quite right. The list is "misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence". The phrases "misfortune and external resistance" and "some kinds of hatred" are themselves list items.

Also, be aware: that's not a list of things that the author is saying don't belong on the list of "the favourable conditions". Quite the opposite. The implication is that those things are indispensable for "any great growth".

The "ask yourself" formulation is basically a stealth version of a rhetorical question. We could re-write it thus:

Can a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height dispense with bad weather and storms? Don't misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible?

The implication of the first rhetorical question ("Can a tree...") is that the answer is "no", and the implication of the second ("Don't misfortune...") is "yes, they do".

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  • +1, but I think the use of the semicolon follows an established convention; see my "Supplement". – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 19 '16 at 11:56
  • My current understanding of that sentence is now that it is a clause not a full sentence that follows the semi-colon. What's missing in the clause that follows the semi-colon is "Ask yourselves". Did I understand correct? – Ascendant Feb 23 '16 at 0:32
  • @Ascendant yes, that's right. – Codeswitcher Feb 24 '16 at 1:53
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SUPPLEMENTAL TO Codeswitcher's ANSWER
Parse it thus:

Ask yourself

  1. whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms;
  2. whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.

This is fairly common use of the semi-colon as a sort of higher-order comma to distinguish items in a list which are themselves internally articulated with commas. Here the semi-colon separates two whether clauses which both act as complements to ask; in effect, it instructs you to treat the two clauses as syntactically independent of each other.

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