Punctuation Review #6: The Despised Semicolon

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A friend whose novel is in the works for publication has been told by her editor that “publishers hate semicolons.”

Wondering if this were a common attitude, I did a little exploring. Apparently writers, if not publishers, have harbored strong feelings about this punctuation mark for some time:

With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap. —Abraham Lincoln.

Not using semicolons is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.— George Bernard Shaw. 

Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.— Kurt Vonnegut.

Sites offering advice to writers present differing points of view:

Some publishers have rules: one semicolon or exclamation point per page. No colons at all.—The Pro Editing Edge.

Semicolons exist for a reason. When used correctly, these little chaps offer a delightfully quick pause that can bring two related sentences closer than the yawn of a comma or the divorce of a period can.—Inkbot Editing.

Here are common uses of the semicolon that conform to recommendations in The Chicago Manual of Style:

1. A semicolon is used with transitional adverbs like however, therefore, and indeed when they join two independent clauses:

The pianist developed severe arthritis in his left hand; therefore, he had to cancel the tour.

2. A semicolon is used instead of a comma to introduce a clause that is introduced by a conjunction to produce a more dramatic separation between ideas:

He said that he liked to read; but the house contained not a single book.

and to make reading easier when the second independent clause has internal punctuation:

His wife loved the house; but the cracked foundation, together with dry rot in the attic, and mold in the cellar persuaded her to give up the idea.

3. A semicolon is used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would:

An adult glued to a screen has a fully formed prefrontal cortex, which means he can think about the content he sees and hears; that’s not the case with an infant.

The AP Stylebook illustrates the use of a semicolon to join two independent clauses:

“The package was due last week; it arrived today.”

And it illustrates the use of a semicolon to precede a coordinating conjunction when one of the clauses contains extensive punctuation:

They pulled their boats from the water, sandbagged the retaining walls, and boarded up the windows; but even with these precautions, the island was hard-hit by the hurricane.

Although AP offers an example of a semicolon used to join independent clauses, the editors offer this advice:

Unless a particular literary effect is desired, the better approach in these circumstances is to break the independent clauses into separate sentences.

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6 thoughts on “Punctuation Review #6: The Despised Semicolon”

  1. I have to enter and say I agree with Lincolns’ assessment and I am a fan of the semicolon. It is most handy when listing things (which I don’t see covered specifically in the article.) E.g. “The cowboy wore a red, white, and blue bandana; a stetson hat; riding boots; and a leather belt.” Both the examples in #2 look right to me. I may have used a comma without much thought on a first draft, but upon consideration and editing I probably would have changed them to semicolons.

    As to the Vonnegut quote; How exactly would a transvestite hermaphrodite display? How would you know that a hermaphrodite was cross-dressing? A hermaphrodite dressing like not-a-hermaphrodite one supposes… With that slippery a grip on vocabulary, I don’t think I’d trust his judgment regarding something as technical as semicolonry.

  2. I would say that your first 3 examples ought to be commas, not semicolons. They’re the sort of incorrect use of the semicolon that both I and my proofreader would jump on. The ‘but’ and the ‘therefore’ render them unnecessary,.

    It annoys me when people are against them – either one is needed, or it’s not. I can never understand why people have such a problem with them; you can HEAR the semicolon in the sentence, I think!

  3. @venqax: Aye, there’s the rub: You would not know a hermaphrodite if you saw one!

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