From countless hours of poring over Lovecraft, his usage of semicolons has been found to be somewhat odd. At times, he'll place them where a comma would usually be seen; sort of like this. For example,

Dr. Muñoz I had never heard, save for certain sounds as of some gasoline-driven mechanism; since his step was soft and gentle.

Mrs. Herrero crossed herself when she looked at him, and gave him up unreservedly to me; not even letting her son Esteban continue to run errands for him.

After that I paid him frequent overcoated calls; listening while he told of secret researches and almost ghastly results, and trembling a bit when I examined the unconventional and astonishingly ancient volumes on his shelves.

The waves from that thing are waking a thousand sleeping senses in us; senses which we inherit from aeons of evolution from the state of detached electrons to the state of organic humanity.

The first three examples come from Cool Air. The final's from From Beyond.

Lovecraft was a weird man, so it's not surprising that he'd have a weird style. However, with that being said, is this usage "correct"? Could someone be flagged as wrong for emulating it? And if not, why isn't it seen more often?

  • What is "right" and "wrong" in punctuation is already contentious and subjective. The best we can refer to is style guides (eg Chicago, AP), but these differ amongst themselves at many levels. But when a writer whose work has become famous consistently uses a particular style, it's a very brave and very rare pundit indeed who will go so far as to outright label the practice "wrong". For example, is e e cummings capitalized "wrong"; "should" it be otherwise?
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 23:20
  • 2
    Despite 'right' and 'wrong' being ill-defined hereabouts, this is non-standard and would be marked incorrect by many markers. Dashes would be standard in sentences 2, 3 and 4, and a comma in 1. Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 23:21
  • 1
    If Cthulhu doesn't object to Lovecraft's punctuation, who are we to demur?
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 23:57
  • 1
    Lovecraft was influential enough that he could write however he wished. But note that he died in 1937, and many of the "rules" for punctuation were in flux well into the 50s.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 0:52

1 Answer 1


It is worth considering what's the role of the semicolon in a sentence. According to Wikipedia

The semicolon or semi-colon (;) is a punctuation mark that separates major sentence elements. A semicolon can be used between two closely related independent clauses, provided they are not already joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Oxford Dictionaries online makes the especially pertinent point that

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences (...) You can also use a semicolon as a stronger division in a sentence that already contains commas

I am strongly persuaded by the argument that the main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop; even if what follows (as right here) cannot stand by its own as a complete sentence.

So I am willing to speculate, based on the examples you have quoted in your question, that H.P.Lovecraft used those semicolons as a stylistic device to mark a longer pause than a comma would generically indicate. It is a way of signalling to the reader that a longer pause is 'to be read' at that point, as here; and though not any writer but only a humble internet user, I sometimes use the semicolon for that purpose myself.

Or else the author was simply using the semicolon 'as a stronger division in a sentence that already contains commas,' which is a valid use of the semicolon as noted by Oxford Dictionaries online.

In at least two of those examples the semicolon could even be replaced by a colon, methinks.

In any case (unless blatantly incorrect), punctuation is often less a matter of grammar and more a matter of style!

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