Semicolons. Some writers hate them; others love them. They have the “break” of a period and the fluidity of a comma, all wrapped into one slim, contentious package. They can be zesty and refreshing, but when used with too much abandon, they almost always lead to trouble. They’re like alcoholic beverages: it’s okay to use them in moderation—just don’t do anything you might regret in the morning.
Semicolons are often the subject of heated debates within the literary world. But who would think that this harmless-looking punctuation mark would be the subject of so many “word nerd” arguments? Let’s take a look at both points of view.
Many writers feel that the semicolon is pointless—it is the brother to the period, not the comma. Why not just use a period and get it over with? Other writers think that using the semicolon is just “showy”—that it’s a useless bit of punctuation that should be avoided at all costs.
Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. —Kurt Vonnegut
The sentiment that semicolons are a way to “show off” is sometimes justified. It is also common to see the semicolon being used improperly—a fact that irks even the most lax grammar snob.
Other writers feel that the semicolon is useful as a bridge between a period (a full stop, or long pause) and a comma (a medium pause). The semicolon creates a pause that moves more quickly than a period or a comma, closely linking two related sentences. It is also used when listing items that are separated with a comma. Sounds pretty useful, right?
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
Matthew Inman, an artist known for his hilarious (and often politically incorrect) web comic, The Oatmeal, would agree with Lincoln’s positive stance on semicolon usage. Inman even published a web comic saying to his readers (and I quote), “Using a semicolon isn’t that hard; I once saw a party gorilla do it.” How can you argue with that?
You can do a quick online search to find hundreds of arguments for and against our friend the semicolon. But perhaps what’s most important is that you at least know how to use it correctly—for argument’s sake.
Semicolons can be used to link two related independent clauses (complete sentences), or to list items that are separated by a comma. Here are two examples of these usages:
- My aunt came over to visit today; she brought her yappy little dog.
- We went to so many awesome places on our trip: London, England; Madrid, Spain; Berlin, Germany; and Miami, Florida.
The semicolon can also be used more creatively, as long as it is conjoining two independent clauses (complete sentences), and does not include a conjunction (with, and, but, because, for, etc.):
- CORRECT: Someday I’ll have to teach you how to use a crossbow; it’s a solid piece of weaponry.
- INCORRECT: Someday I’ll have to teach you how to use a crossbow; because it’s a solid piece of weaponry.
Use with Caution
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.
I find semicolons useful in my own writing, and I encourage those who fear them to break out of their shells and give them a whirl. But don’t overdo it. Too many semicolons in your writing will make you seem like you’re trying too hard.
Remember: semicolons are the alcoholic beverages of punctuation—if you abuse them, you just might wake up in a field without any pants on.
What do you think about semicolons? (Do you think about semicolons?) Do you love them or hate them? Do you use them in your own writing? Let me know in the comments!