May 4, 2012

The Poor, Neglected Semicolon

I had a rather heated and completely enjoyable disagreement with an esteemed colleague today over the use of semicolons.

She. Says. No.

I. Say. Yes.

I don't use them everywhere, but I think they need to stay in our language. They're misunderstood, they're often maligned ... poor, poor semicolons. had some interesting tidbits:
There are those who have a prejudice against the semicolon; personally I find it a very useful stop.
(G. V. Carey, Mind the Stop, 1958)
It's a mark, Lewis Thomas has said, that offers "a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come."

But be advised: not all writers and editors are fans of the semicolon, and its use has been on the decline for well over a century. Copy chief Bill Walsh calls the semicolon "an ugly bastard" (Lapsing Into a Comma, 2000), and Kurt Vonnegut has said that the only reason to use it is "to show you've been to college."

Such expressions of contempt are nothing new. Consider what grammarian Justin Brenan had to say about the semicolon back in 1865:
One of the greatest improvements in punctuation is the rejection of the eternal semicolons of our ancestors. . . . In latter times, the semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from the newspapers, but from books--insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon.
(Composition and Punctuation Familiarly Explained, Virtue Brothers, 1865)

Let's give semicolons some love this month! Use them wherever you can!

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