Save the semicolons

“[U]se of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid—a separator that’s also a connector—but it’s a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.”

Henry Hitchings, “Is This the Future of Punctuation!?(Wall Street Journal, 22 Oct. 2011)

Rightfully, I think, there’s been a reaction to the venerable prescriptive school of grammar and punctuation. The modern tendency is to go instead with current usage. But some people — and Hitchings might be one of them, if I read his attitude to semicolons correctly — go too far with that. Perhaps what he really meant has been corrupted in its editing. I can’t believe that someone with his background and evident writing skills could describe the semicolon as a mere “trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.”

I’m all for minimalism in most spheres of this life; and in no way would I advocate unnecessary and obtrusive punctuation merely on the grounds that I attended Grenville High School, in Quebec, where I was suspended for offenses that modesty forbids I specify. (The year I was in Grade 9, just incidentally, the teachers’ association declared Grenville High the worst school in the entire province and barred Association teachers, i.e. any officially qualified teachers, from teaching there.)

But letting the semicolon go officially extinct would mean competent writers lose a valuable tool for no other reason than pundits yield to current popular taste. The way things are going, we could be left with little more than a few Anglo-Saxon grunts ornamented with full stops, question marks and—for the few writers who still use relatively complex sentences and don’t mind appearing affected—commas. Oh, I forgot!!! And exclamation marks, those handy and hugely popular vehicles of spurious verve and melodrama à la mode. (Doesn’t matter. Whatever. Emoticons are meanwhile threatening to relegate words and punctuation to wherever the dodos have gone.) Mass criteria of the good rool, OK!

I use semicolons sparingly. I’m in no way emotionally attached to them. Used appropriately,  however, they make essential contributions to clear prose. Hitchings’ apparent belief that the semicolon is nothing but an affectation among a few ponces is utter rubbish.

Where current usage can be shown to be destructive of effective prose, then it should be resisted. Semicolons rool, OK!

Here are some surplus semicolons I avoided using in the foregoing: ;;;;;;;;;. Help yourself.

Assailed once again by the notion I should instead be working on a novel, I offer a brace of haikus.


Complex items in a list,

Good semicolons


As in: “Punctuation clarifies prose by establishing logical relations, e.g. in distinguishing defining from non-defining relative clauses; by reflecting spoken language, with its pauses for breath or dramatic effect, e.g., or by evoking tones of interrogation, surprise, disbelief, and so on; and simply by providing a rest for short-term memory and attention when a sentence starts going stylistically all Hegelian on you.” Try reading that without the semicolons.

Or in this case (I know we could have two sentences instead, but considerations of meaning or rhythm can mean the semi-colon is better): “He went through the manuscript of ‘How You Know When You’ve Finished Revising,’ culling commas where he could; later in the day, he went back and reinstalled most of them. Then he sent it away.”


Middle way

To stop or only to pause?

Good semicolons

Find the middle way.

The Wal-Mart sign (above) is meant to be ironic, isn’t it?

10 thoughts on “Save the semicolons”

  1. Well, I want to know the offenses you were suspended for; which you are too modest to specify; and we could get rid of all; them semicolons; if we would just write shorter sentences. This is the 21st century; man! Nobody has an attention span shorter than; three seconds. Besides, the semicolon; requires two marks on the page, the period and the comma under it. No punctuation mark should require more than one mark. The question mark should omit the dot under it, and ditto for the exclamation mark. The colon should also go the way of this morning’s generous contribution to the Cotto empire. It; too; requires two marks: Modern technology has supplied a wonderful new mark which nobody is using: the arrow (>). It can easily replace the colon. The semicolon is a wishy-washy punctuation mark that can’t decide whether it’s a period or a comma. It ought to make up its mind, and thereby extinctify itself.

    • I’m glad to see you’ve made generous use of those surplus semicolons; that’s the spirit.

      “Extinctify”? There’s a neologism for you. It could also mean to remove a stink, as in tomato juice famously extinctifies dogs who’ve had close encounters with a skunk.

    • Thanks. More fun than my account.

      Though I have a couple of minor quibbles with what Oatmeal has to say. E.g. the notion that you should *never* use a semicolon with a conjunction is plain wrong, as are any absolutist rules of writing style. These are never more than maxims, and may be broken at will by competent writers, in full awareness and for good reason; and Oatmeal himself is the origin of this stricture, I believe, which makes it even easier to break.

  2. I’ve read the book that Hitchings has written about “language wars” and I can absolutely say that whatever he had to say in the WSJ he is in fact keen on the semicolon both in principle and in practice. He gives a much more detailed explanation of their use and history, including a useful distinction between semicolons and colons.

  3. Do you think there’s a declining respect for the written word, in general, and thus a prevailing attitude that it hardly matters? Whatever. Talk about language if you like. But did you see the football last night? Mind you, it’s early in the morning, here in Bangkok, and I’m suffering a bleary perspective on the world.

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