As a non-native speaker of the English language, and to some extent a non-avid reader of English novels, I don't quite understand why Melville is using semicolons and dashes as he does in the following passage of Moby Dick:

Besides, passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don't sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves as much, as a general thing;—no, I never go as a passenger; nor though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook.


  1. is it an artistic choice to use the semicolons instead of full stops? Wouldn't

    [...]I never go as a passenger. Nor though I am something of salt,...

    work as well?

  2. Why use dashes after the semicolon? To my knowledge dashes are a great way to express another related thought in middle or at the end of a sentence. Therefore the syntax ;— feels a bit alien to me.

  • 3
    With a classic author of another era, the question to me is not if he could have done it some way someone would consider “better,” but why he did it as he did; what was he trying to get across. This. is literary interpretation.
    – Xanne
    Jul 4 at 9:01
  • 2
    I've done that. On Windows, Alt-0150 is an en-dash; Alt-0151 is an em-dash.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 4 at 9:42
  • I think that it was common a century or two ago to follow a semicolon or colon with a dash; it's not often done now.  But that's merely a typographical point, and doesn't affect the meaning.
    – gidds
    Jul 4 at 19:05

This is basically a question you could ask on Literature SE, but what it looks like is a literary technique called stream of consciousness.

Wikipedia defines it as

a metaphor describing how thoughts seem to flow through the conscious mind (i.e. without interruptions). In literature, stream of consciousness writing is a literary device which seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his or her sensory reactions to external occurrences.

This site says:

Melville invents stream of consciousness with Stubb, although James Joyce and Virginia Woolf will get the credit.

This is connected to the English language first because although it is now a universal literary device, it was coined by English native authors, and second, in the sense of how this fluidity is marked in writing [* additions in square brackets by me]:

To represent the full richness, speed, and subtlety of the mind at work, the writer incorporates snatches of incoherent thought [which looks like the phrases in between the em dashes in your excerpt], ungrammatical constructions [don't sleep of nights looks like one], and free association of ideas, images, and words at the pre-speech level. (Britannica)

The stream of consciousness technique becomes obvious in syntax and grammar:

Stream of consciousness writing does not usually follow ordinary rules of grammar and syntax (or word order). This is because thoughts are often not fully formed, or they change course in the middle and become "run-on sentences," or they are interrupted by another thought [interruptions can be indicated through the punctuation that puzzled you]. So grammar and syntax can be used to replicate this process in ways that aren't grammatically or syntactically "correct", but that nonetheless feel accurate. Additionally, writers of stream of consciousness often use punctuation in unconventional ways (using italics, ellipses, dashes, and line breaks to indicate pauses and shifts in the character's train of thought). (Litcharts.com)

Of course, it takes artistry to use grammatical and syntactical "incorrectness" in a way that "nonetheless feels accurate".

  • 2
    I was about to CV as 'merely artistic licence / non-standard', but your answer is too good. Jul 4 at 14:36
  • ‘Of course, it takes artistry to use grammatical and syntactical "incorrectness" in a way that "nonetheless feels accurate"’. Which I don’t think Melville quite mastered, especially in the quoted quoted segment.
    – Cass Lopez
    Jul 4 at 15:31
  • 3
    This is a creative but incorrect answer. This is not stream of consciousness writing; it's from the opening chapter of the book that begins Call me Ishmael and continues in the narrator's voice. Your reference to Melville and stream of consciousness writing refers to a particular passage: the character Stubb's interior dialog in Chapter 28. Jul 4 at 16:29
  • 3
    Tinfoil Hat is right on the money. There's nothing there to suggest that the excerpted portion is stream of consciousness or interior monologue, other than it being voiced by the protagonist. If we go by this logic of calling the musings or thoughts of any character stream of consciousness, then we should call all of Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Shakespeare's Hamlet (especially where he soliloquises) stream of consciousness. This definitely belongs on Literature SE. Here the OP will get personal opinions and technically incorrect answers. Tis better to ask this of a Melville expert. Jul 4 at 16:42
  • The answer is equal parts Because 19th-century writing. and Because Melville. Food for thought: Of Semicolons and Big Whales Jul 4 at 16:53

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