“Leopards,” Oom Schalk Lourens said, “Oh yes, there are two varieties on his side of the Limpopo. The chief difference between them is that one kind of leopard has got a few more spots on it than the other kind. But when you meet a leopard in the veld unexpectedly, you seldom trouble to count his spots to find out what kind he belongs to. That is unnecessary because whatever kind of leopard it is that you come across in this way, you only do one kind of running, and that is the fastest kind.”
— “In the Withaak’s Shade” ( Herman Charles Bosman, Mafeking Road and Other Stories)
Among the literary bullshitters of this world, there are few I admire more than Oom Schalk Lourens. South African readers will likely know Herman Charles Bosman’s raconteur extraordinaire. He tells whoppers, but here’s the thing: The bigger Oom Schalk’s bull, the deeper the thought that drives it.
In the story from which my quote comes, Oom Schalk is searching for stray cattle under the Withaak tree when he encounters a leopard. In that moment, he acknowledges, the semantic differences between species are irrelevant: running is running. Except that he can’t. And just like that, Oom Schalk discovers a truth. Not about leopards, but about hunters: It is not bravery that drives them to stick around in the face of danger, it is fear. They would run like anyone else, except that fear roots them to the spot.
But enough bullshitting about stories. Let’s move on to more metaphorical leopards and cattle in the world of words. Yes, it is necessary to know important things like the differences between commas and semi-colons, or when (not) to use an Oxford comma. Knowing how to use these things reveals great wisdom and sagacity. However, when you’re a writer lying in the shade of a tree searching for words that are as elusive as Oom Schalk Lourens’s cattle, such differences become irrelevant. After all, your fingers only do one kind of clicking across the keyboard, and that is the fastest. (Besides, you can hire an editor to clean up the mess you leave behind.)
When you’re staring into the angry face of a semi-colon and feel its terrifying breath blow across your neck, don’t stop to consider what kind of punctuation mark you are dealing with. Rather, as Oom Schalk suggests, you should trust your instincts and let your strange companion settle beside you. When the time is right, in a second draft, or when a better course of action emerges, you can walk away from it without bloodshed. Or, for risk of repeating this too often, you can hire an editor.
Put differently: it is good to know the rules of grammar, but only to understand when to break them with confidence and purpose. Respond to the demands of situation. (Editors can help with that.)
Whether as a reader, a writer, or an editor, I care not a whit what variety of semi-colon confronts me. That’s for pedants. I care only that it works best in the context.