In defense of the semicolon


Deep in the bowels of your old English Grammar book (which you undoubtedly sold back to your college bookstore at a 95% loss), a terribly boring, well-meaning, underpaid textbook writer placed a glowing gem of linguistic beauty. You, no doubt, ignored it, and I only half blame you. For if you hardly found intellectual stimulation with the colon, how could you be expected to hope for anything more exciting about the little grammatical tittle whose derivative name essentially means “colon wannabe”?

But the semicolon, I say, is the most unappreciated, underrated of the common punctuational marks. Even the great Kurt Vonnegut has demeaned this marrier of independent clauses:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Now I appreciate Mr. Vonnegut’s intellectual and narrative contributions. But I don’t appreciate his sentiments about the semicolon.

Everyone should use semicolons.

Why, you ask?

Here’s why:

  1. Your pinkie finger is already there, waiting to activate (I won’t say “depress,” as I’m trying to erase all negative connotations with this grammatical gem) the semicolon key at an instant. ; See there, I just did it, with minimal effort. No unnatural contortions of my poor little finger down and over toward the Shift key while my semi-dependent right ring finger activates the colon. No descent of the overused middle finger down to the overused comma. No time-consuming removal of my hands from the keyboard while I search for an appropriate typographical symbol. Of course, all of this assumes you employ the “home row” placement of your hands on the keyboard. If you don’t use home row, and you don’t use the semicolon… well, I’d say you’re on the verge of being a full-fledged linguistic reprobate. And don’t even start with the whole, “I’m a non-conformist” thing. That claim is more overused than the comma, more abused than the colon.
  2. Sometimes, conjunctions just get in the way. A conjunction can be a beautiful thing, to be sure. The perfectly placed “but” imparts to a wordsmith sheer delight. But sometimes, a conjunction can destroy the otherwise perfect flow between two brilliantly sculpted independent clauses. I can’t think of a good example; we’ll just keep going.
  3. Semicolons add aesthetic interest to your writing. Now admittedly this is partly a result of the punctuation mark’s dwindling use. Few people even know what a semicolon looks like anymore! Regrettably, popular culture is more attuned to the bastardized number sign, or “hash tag,” (I’ll not deign to feature it here) than to the noble semicolon. But that means when you confidently carve that semicolon between two clauses, your writing will approach the realm of the visual arts!
  4. Semicolons speak to your intelligence. Yes, I know Mr. Vonnegut said using a semicolon is tantamount to bragging about your college education. But that was in the days when a college degree meant something! It meant you were probably intelligent! But these days, countless Facebooked, Pinteresting, XBoxed, Tweeting Twits make their way through the educational system without ever really knowing, caring, or learning about how to use a semicolon. So, thanks to academic inflation, your use of the semicolon really does speak to your intelligence! Use it. Your friends, colleagues, employers, and even your enemies will be impressed.

There are those who try. They want to use semicolons. “My pinkie finger is right there,” they undoubtedly think to themselves. “I’ll just try it, and see if I get away with it.”

Many of them probably do get away with it. And while I honor their courage, I can not praise their ignorance. In fact, Aristotle reminds us that courage combined with ignorance amounts to rashness. And no one praises rashness.

Here are some examples of semicolon abuse:

  1. Putting a semicolon where a colon should go. For example: “The proposed gun control bill would ban the following items; ‘high capacity’ magazines, muzzle suppressors, and scary-looking guns.” While the sentence’s content may be incisive, that semicolon doesn’t go there. It should be a colon instead.
  2. Putting a semicolon where a comma should go. For example: “This morning I went for a light jog; drank a glass of water; and reported to the hospital for my colonoscopy.” This sentence uses semicolons to divide up a series of activities, when it should instead use commas. The only time semicolons should be used in a list is when the individual items in the list are complex and contain commas. For example: “The three-person committee is composed of Roy Blunt, a Missouri Senator; Rand Paul, a Kentucky Senator; and Ted Cruz, a Texas Senator.”

There are assuredly more abuses than those two; I simply mentioned the most common ones.

In conclusion, let me urge you to strive for excellence in your writing. Whether you’re creating a funding proposal, generating standard activity reports, writing a resumé cover letter, or emailing your Aunt Lottie, there’s always room for a little punctuational beauty. There’s always room for a semicolon. 😉

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6 Responses to In defense of the semicolon

  1. luanaaraceli says:

    I loved this. And part of the problem with people not using the semicolon comes from the fact that so few colleges nowadays seem interested in teaching grammar. I run a writing group in my community and one of the girls (a college student) told me that she had no idea how to place commas properly, let alone semicolons. The worst thing? She’s 18 credits shy of a Minor degree in English.

    All aspects of grammar should be embraced–including the semicolon–by anyone pursuing a degree in English and by anyone who writes.

  2. thelyniezian says:

    I do tend to like using the semi-colon a lot; then again, I do tend to like writing extremely long-winded sentences, such as this could be an example of.

    (Or perhaps not.)

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