Semicolon: Story of a Subtle Punctuation Mark

SemicolonElizabeth posted a cartoon on my Facebook time line. It is by Loren Fishman, and it features a teacher at a chalkboard with “grammar/punctuation” written, and then the winking smiley emoticon — ;) — below it. The teacher says, “Yes, a winky face is correct… But in ancient times, the semicolon was actually used to separate archaic written devices known as ‘complete sentences.’” It got me thinking about the semicolon.

In standard usage, the semicolon does indeed link complete sentences. This raises the question of why one would use the semicolon at all. When used in this way, one could instead use a period. The point of using a semicolon is to connect the sentences more closely. So the following is perfectly correct, “He had a gun. It was pointed right at me.” But it works better to write, “He had a gun; it was pointed right at me.”

At the same time, this would be wrong: “He had a gun; pointed right at me.” That’s where our good friend the em-dash comes in, “He had a gun — pointed right at me.” What’s wonderful about the em-dash is that it is the Swiss Army Knife of punctuation; you can use it for almost anything. One of my favorites — This should come as no surprise! — is to stick an entire sentence in the middle of a sentence.

The Semicolon Meets the Modern Sentence

The idea of “complete sentences” has become vague in recent years. Is this a complete sentence: “Because he couldn’t help himself”? Strictly speaking, it isn’t; it is a dependent clause. Yet few people would have a problem with it in the right context, “He kissed her. Because he couldn’t help himself.” And if that’s okay, isn’t, “He kissed her; because he couldn’t help himself”?

Oh, it gets murky here! Why not just, “He kissed her, because he couldn’t help himself”? If you want to use the semicolon, why use “because”? This works a whole lot better: “He kissed her; he couldn’t help himself.”

Is the Semicolon Necessary?

I think it is best to stick with the standard definition of a complete sentence when it comes to the semicolon. The reason is that the semicolon implies a conjunction. But exactly what it implies depends upon the context. In the last example, I wouldn’t say that it implies “because”; it implies something more, and “because” gets in the way.

For those who just want to make their lives easier, avoid the semicolon. And if you do want to use it, stick to linking two complete sentences. But for most people, the semicolon is more subtle than necessary. Most people don’t write precisely enough for there to be a distinction between a semicolon and a period.

But Wait! There’s More!

There is another use of the semicolon that people don’t talk much about: as a list separator. In general, it should be avoided. But when you are listing complicated things — especially ones that include “and” in their titles — semicolons are very useful. For example, “There was a Johnny Depp triple-feature that night: Benny & Joon; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Admittedly, the italics of the film titles make using a comma much easier. But you get the idea.

Here’s a great example of a place were a semicolon really helps. Consider the following sentence, “This articles deals with topics such as expanding your introduction, tightening your education, skills, and experience sections, and typesetting and printing.” Now that’s a perfectly good sentence. But it’s also complex and hard to grok in one read-through.

Semicolons for Clarity!

But the sentence can be made much clearer with the semicolon. Consider it now, “This articles deals with topics such as expanding your introduction; tightening your education, skills, and experience sections; and typesetting and printing.” Now it’s clear that we are talking about three items, even if the items themselves are somewhat complex.

So when you find yourself writing a list that might be confusing, remember that your friendly semicolon is there to help out. The standard use of semicolons to connect sentences could be eliminated from the language without much concern. But this less common use of the semicolon really is an important tool for writers. Because it can be used to improve clarity. And clarity is all.

4 thoughts on “Semicolon: Story of a Subtle Punctuation Mark

  1. “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.”― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

    • That’s great! I attended a lecture by Vonnegut once. He gave two bits of advice. First, he said to throw out the first 3 pages of your novel, because it was probably just a description of a sunflower or something. In other words: get to the action. Second, he said every story should have an Iago. In other words: have a character that will push the plot forward. It’s basic stuff, but useful to most fiction writers. Of course, not all writers want to be Vonnegut or Elmore Leonard. But as a reader, I often find myself thinking, “Get on with it already!”

      Personally, I think the semicolon is very useful. But it is, as I said, subtle. And we really could live without it.

  2. Someone wrote a whole play about it – “Wit;”. I saw it back in the 90s. It was pretty good. Yeah, there’s a semicolon in its title.

    In general, I avoid semicolons, except when I’m writing under some space or time constraint and want to jam in a lot of stuff. For example, my resume has lots of semicolons to fit on a single page lest some automatic paper cut slice off the rest of it.

    • I haven’t heard of the play. At first I thought it was a play about semicolons, which are the kind of plays I write. But it isn’t. Sounds like a great idea though. I have written a few grammar-related plays, but never anything on punctuation. Sounds like fun. (For freaks like me.)

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