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.
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.
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.|