The Writer is Not Finished Yet

Saving semicolons

The semicolon is one of the most misused and misunderstood tools in writing. Even now, if I type “semi-colon” — a style apparently acceptable enough for the BBC’s World Service — the dreaded red underline appears. Google docs or Word is imposing their preference, and if I want that glaring mark to disappear, I’d better follow suit.

This is all-too-common: corrections are made based on preference, not as the result of a broken rule. And when there aren’t these insistent guidelines (as is the case so often in semicolon use) we avoid the subject entirely.

To try and shed some light on the semicolon and open some literary doors, I’ll highlight all the rules and examples I can find, then explain the negativity and confusion surrounding this harmless, but intimidating, punctuation mark.

In his posthumously published A Man Without A Country, the never-shy Kurt Vonnegut offered this opinion about semicolons:

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

Seven years later, “Semicolons: A Love Story,” was published by the New York Times, featuring Ben Dolnick’s alternative perspective, “No other piece of punctuation so compactly captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, wave and particle.”

From the NYT opinion piece

So what exactly does this controversial interruption actually do? At the top of the results page for “when to use a semicolon,” a comic from The Oatmeal offers a surprisingly insightful and basic description, “Use a semicolon when you want to form a bond between two statements, typically when they are related or in contrast with one another.” Other, more academic, sources (1, 2) include the following opportunities:

  • Linking two independent clauses to connect closely related ideas
    Some people write with a word processor; others write with a pen or pencil.
  • Linking to a clause with a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase
    However they choose to write, people are allowed to make their own decisions; as a result, many people swear by their writing methods.
  • Linking lists to avoid confusion between list items
    There are two ways to write: with a pen or pencil, which is inexpensive and easily accessible; or with a computer, which is quick and neat.
  • Linking lengthy clauses or clauses with commas to avoid confusion
    Some people write with a word processor, typewriter, or a computer; but others, for different reasons, choose to write with a pen or pencil.
  • Joining independent clauses in compound sentences that do not have coordinating conjunctions
    There was no running and no shouting; all the children behaved very well; therefore, they will all get a treat.
  • Separating long or complicated items in a series which already includes commas
    The speakers were Dr. Judith Cornwell, English; Dr. Shirley Enders, history; and Dr. Charles Viceroy, mathematics.
  • Separating long or complex independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction if using a comma would be confusing
    After the session, participants will know how to handle paperwork, work under pressure, and juggle deadlines; and, if they complete all requirements, they will have a valuable addition to their resumes.

I disqualified one .edu source after they included “to help sort out a monster list.” The point here is that there are many uses for a semicolon, many of which exist to avoid confusion.

Other explanations are more poetic. Mary Norris writes in her New Yorker article, “Semicolons; So Tricky,” about her friend who “likes to think of a semicolon as a comma with vibrato.” The article also references the book, Punctuation..? which lists under semicolon, “Its main role is to indicate a separation between two parts of a sentence that is stronger than a comma but less strong than dividing the sentence in two with a full stop…. She looked at me; I was lost for words.” Norris’ own interpretation inspired this article’s title:

“And it still seems to have a vestigial interrogative quality to it, a cue to the reader that the writer is not finished yet; she is holding her breath.”

This particular article has yet to use a semicolon, because I myself am nervous about misusing it. Even though I use semicolons in my own writing frequently, and despite the many sources I used to research the subject, there is a boldness that accompanies using the semicolon that some are not willing to embrace or recommend to others.

And yet, when it comes to Vonnegut’s warning, I side with Dolnick, “I can’t agree that semicolons represent absolutely nothing; they represent, for me anyway, the pleasure in discovering that no piece of writing advice, however stark, however beloved its deliverer, should ever be adopted mindlessly.”

Writers need as many tools as possible; the variety of writing depends on it. If we stop using the semicolon because either we’re scared of Kurt Vonnegut or unwilling to assert ourselves, we’re going to see less semicolons in general and more homogeneous writing. As Mary Norris points out, “we learn how to punctuate by reading.” We can only lead by example, make sure the writer’s tool belt stops shrinking, and fight the good fight against the “errorless” page.