30 March 2014

Slow Death by Disuse

by Louis Willis

The main task of the semicolon is to mark a break that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop. It’s used between two main clauses that balance each other and are too closely linked to be made into separate sentences. 
Oxford Dictionaries.

In his article “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?” on the Slate website, Paul Collins relates a brief history of the semicolon:

       The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.  

Collins notes that the advent of the telegraph in 1850 might have “radically” changed language use because punctuation marks cost the same rate as words ($5.00). As far the semicolon, his perusal of “telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion.” He never quite says that in these modern times the Internet is killing the semicolon but strongly implies that it is. He believes, nevertheless, that “semicolons serve a unique function,...” but fails to say what that function is.
Matthew Kassel believes the semicolon isn’t dying but is “the perfect punctuation for the digital age.” In his "The Semicolon Is the Perfect Punctuation for the Digital Age" article on the New York Observer web site, Kassel argues “that the semicolon is...perfectly suitable for text messaging, instant messaging and online correspondence via Facebook and other social networks, where disparate ideas roam free and ‘unexpected juxtapositions’ are the norm.” He felt “compelled” to defend the semicolon because he “often uses semicolons in digital communication and [has] encountered some unexpected pushback.” Further, for him “the semicolon’s breezy informality… captures the unstructured, colloquial nature of digital correspondence more so than any other punctuation mark out there.” I didn’t find a whole lot of semicolons in his articles on the Observer site, and I couldn’t access his Twitter account, which was probably due to my unstructured, colloquial nature. 
The goal of communications on the social networks is to get the message out as quickly as possible and don’t bother about those little pesky things called punctuation marks. Way back in 1999, one writer, Amy Harmon, in an article "Internet Changes Language" published in the New York Times on February 20 noted that “Although judgments vary, what seems clear so far is that the Internet has propelled the traditionally deliberate pace of language evolution to higher speeds.” 
The semicolon doesn’t lend itself to the speed Twitter and Facebook requires because it insists on a brief pause to allow the reader to think. Readers who, like me, sometimes want, not just dip into an article, story, or essay, but to savor it, would, in these times of instant gratification, miss the semicolon. I have faith, though I don’t know if it is “the perfect punctuation for the Digital Age” as Kassel suggests, that its demise is not imminent. 
To you semicolon; may you live forever.


  1. While the article is thoughtful and well done, I'm not sure the case for keeping the semi-colon is strong enough. Other than smilies, of course.

  2. Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but I'm fine with the semicolon. I didn't see mention of another use which is to list lists of lists or other parts that already contain commas.

  3. When I left private practice and went to work for the government back in the 1990s I was surprised by the abundance of semicolons in governmental writing. I don't know if it was just at my agency (the Department of Transportation) but everywhere thoughts that otherwise would have been set forth in separate sentences were strung together with semicolons. I still have no clue as to why this should be true of governmental writings -- unless it is simply a manifestation of a governmental tendency to express thoughts in more convoluted trappings. Personally I love the semicolon, but it is not a substitute for a period.

  4. Louis, well written, and yes I will sometimes use a semicolon, especially as when Ruth says, listing lists of lists that already have commas.

  5. Anon #2 made me chuckle. I think someone on SleuthSayers had drawn our attention to a cartoon of a teacher of the future addressing her young class and saying of the semicolon, "Yes, it's called a winkie."

  6. The semicolon has probably been misused more than any other punctuation. Although I know its purpose, I find myself struggling to use it properly and have been guilty of using it when a comma was called for. Personally I would not mourn its passing. But I'm not a violent person; not one who will lead the charge to eliminate it. There. Did I use it properly?

  7. Very interesting. I often find in editing that I have used a semicolon where I should have placed a colon. I stand by the rule that if both clauses can't stand as separate sentences then the semicolon doesn't belong there. So Herschel, I would say no.

  8. Dale, I worked for the Social Security Administration and the writers of regulations seemed to insist on convoluted trappings, especially when the administration would send memos about using plain English. I think they used semicolons in the belief that it would prevent run-on sentences. But maybe it was to confuse those of us who had to interpret the regulations and law for the social security beneficiaries.

    I forgot about lists. I also use the semicolon with lists.

  9. Thanks, Rob. Now you see why I could live out my life without it.

  10. The semicolon will remain in use as long as I am writing, as I seem unable to compose first drafts without it. Revisions invariably involve the removal of, oh, 98% of them, at an estimate. But as with every other form of punctuation or expression, there are times when the semicolon is the only mark that will do.

  11. I'm in the same boat as Kate L. it seems. I find the semi-colon useful, but do spend a lot of time getting rid of them in the end. Still, I think they're under-utilized in today's writing.


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