Let’s Hear It For The Semicolon; It Deserves our Respect!
March 29, 2021
I am so excited.
A mere three days ago, I discovered that someone has written a book on the semicolon!
I confess I haven’t yet read Cecilia Watson’s Semicolon: The Past, Present and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, but if Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s famous Comma Queen, says Semicolon is “delightful”, I’m in.
Are you surprised Ms Watson was able to wrench a whole book – 212 pages to be exact – out of a single punctuation mark? I’m not.
As Lynn Truss says in Eats, Shoots & Leaves:
“Ask professional writers about punctuation and they will not start striking the board about the misuse of the apostrophe; instead they will jabber in a rather breathless manner about the fate of the semicolon. Is it endangered? What will we do if it disappears? Have you noticed that newspapers use it less and less? Save the semicolon! It is essential to our craft!”
Truss explains that George Bernard Shaw (or G.B.S. as he sometimes called himself) positively insisted on the semicolon.
After reading the manuscript of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Shaw complained to its author, T.E. Lawrence: “You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.”
And here’s G.B.S. admonishing the actor Ralph Richardson, who tried to insert some dramatic puffs and pants into his opening lines in a 1931 production of Shaw’s own Arms and the Man:
“This is all very well, Richardson, and it might do for Chekhov, but it doesn’t do for me. Your gasps are upsetting my stops and my semicolons, and you’ve got to stick to them.”
Benjamin Dreyer, vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief at Random House, is also a fan. In his book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, he quotes Lewis Thomas on T.S. Eliot’s use of semicolons:
"The things I like best in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, especially in the Four Quartettes, are the semicolons. You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath."
(Ah, what a lovely piece of writing that is!)
And yet, support for this little mark is not universal. Far from it. Semicolons appear to be the brussel sprout of the punctuation world. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em.
As Truss reports, American writer Donald Barthelme described the semicolon as “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.”
Bill Walsh, chief copy editor in the business section of the Washington Post, agrees: “The semicolon is an ugly bastard, and thus I tend to avoid it.”
Others complain that the semicolon is old-fashioned: “There is a 19th century mustiness that hangs over the semicolon.” (William Zinsser, On Writing Well) or posh: “There is no mark of punctuation so upper-crust as the semicolon.” (Mary Norris, Between You & Me)
Of course, there will always be the in-betweeners, those people who will never admit to liking the semicolon, but who grudgingly concede that it has some utility. These same sorts of people are not particularly fond of brussel sprouts either, but they will usually admit that the little green veggies are good for you.
Here’s Norris on this point: “The semicolon can be done without. You can substitute a comma and a conjunction. But our system of punctuation is highly economical, and if the semicolon has survived all this time there must be some reason for it.”
I should say so!
Here are my reasons for the continued survival of the semicolon.
A semicolon is an effective way of linking two different clauses. There are a couple of caveats to that seemingly simple rule.
First, each of the clauses must be able to function on its own, as a complete sentence. Otherwise, you’ll have what is called a “comma splice.” (Note that I could have linked those two sentences with a semicolon.)
Second, the two independent clauses must be closely or logically related to each other. In fact, one of the reasons you might opt for a semicolon rather than a period (or full stop) is to draw attention to the connection.
Example: Liverpool lost the match; I was heartbroken. (My heartbreak was directly related to Liverpool's loss.)
Not: Liverpool lost the match; I had mac & cheese for dinner. (The fact that I ate mac & cheese has nothing to do with Liverpool's poor performance.)
Keep in mind that when two independent clauses are joined with a conjunctive adverb – like however, therefore, moreover, otherwise, instead or likewise – the clauses must be separated with a semicolon. A comma simply won’t do. Sorry, that’s a rule, not a guideline.
If you’re confused about when to use a comma versus a semicolon, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty offers this “quick and dirty tip.” Commas are smaller than semicolons and go with coordinating conjunctions, usually short two- or three-letter words like and, but and so. Semicolons are bigger, and they go with conjunctive adverbs, which are almost always longer than three letters. In other words, bigger punctuation, bigger words.
Semicolons can add variety to your sentence structure. Ask anyone who has taken my writing workshops, and they'll confirm that I advocate for the short, simple sentence. But not every sentence. Please! Unless you’re deliberately trying to sound like Hemingway, you’ll want to mix things up. Sometimes, you'll want to use two short sentences; other times, you can craft a longer sentence that includes a semicolon.
Semicolons are essential to separate items in a list. But not just any old list – a long list whose items themselves contain commas. Mary Norris calls this “a kind of extra-strength comma.” Using a semicolon saves you from the pandemonium that inevitably ensues from a mass piling on of commas.
Example: Monsters of Folk are a kind of “supergroup”, consisting of Conor Oberst from Omaha, Nebraska; Jim James from Louisville, Kentucky; M. Ward from Portland, Oregon; and Mike Mogis from North Platte, Nebraska.
Of course, if you’re truly allergic to the semicolon, you can always turn your long, horizontal list into a vertical one by inserting bullets before each “item.” I often recommend this because it allows the reader to more quickly scan and digest the information. In that case, the common practice is to add a semicolon at the end of each bulleted item; also add “and” after the penultimate item.
Example: Monsters of Folk are a kind of supergroup, consisting of:
- Conor Oberst from Omaha, Nebraska;
- Jim James from Louisville, Kentucky;
- M. Ward from Portland, Oregon; and
- Mike Mogis from North Platte, Nebraska.
And here’s another little rule for you: Never use a semicolon after a salutation. Always use a comma or a colon. So, it's Dear Daddy, (comma) or Dear Daddy: (colon). Not: Dear Daddy; (semicolon). Sorry, gentle readers, but that’s just the way it is.
On the ever-so-slight chance that I have failed to convince you of the beauty of the semicolon, I leave you with this, from “The Case for Semicolons” by Lauren Oyler which appeared in New York Times Magazine on February 9, 2021:
“There are many things to fear in life, but punctuation is not one of them. That semicolons, unlike most other punctuation marks, are fully optional and relatively unusual lends them power; when you use one, you are doing something purposefully, by choice, at a time when motivations are vague and intentions often denied.”
There you go – another example of the sheer power of writing. See why I get so excited?
Semicolons can add variety to your sentence structure: Use them to link two independent but related clauses. Also use them to separate items in a long list when some or all of those items contain commas.