The semicolon and I got off to a bad start. I was an insecure teenager sitting in typing class wondering why this obnoxious little punctuation mark deserved one of just eight coveted spots under my fingertips. In true insecure-teenager style, I figured I was the problem. The only punctuation mark on which I was told to rest a finger must deserve the honor. If I didn’t understand why, surely my own ignorance was to blame. It’s not you, semicolon. It’s me.
Many years later, when I finally hunkered down to learn proper semicolon use, something miraculous happened: I discovered I had been right to hate the semicolon all along.
The semicolon has two jobs. It separates items too unwieldly for mere commas to manage and it connects clauses that could stand alone as sentences. But I would argue there’s a better way to describe those two jobs: enabling bad writing and enabling pretentious showboating.
We’ll start with that first job. When you have a long list of unwieldy sentence elements, or when you have a short list of extremely unwieldy sentence elements, the semicolon lets you keep them straight. An example: The short-haired dog with the puffy tail and floppy ears; the long-haired dog with brown, white and black markings; and the huge dog that, as I already told you, was adopted by Cindy, Paul and Emma’s family, are playing in the park.
I call these semicolons “uber commas.” As you can see, this sentence would be unintelligible without them. But equally important: It’s terrible with them. If you’re writing a sentence that’s such a mess that only semicolons can keep it straight, it’s time ask whether you should be writing it in the first place. Like our dog example, there’s a good chance your sentence is a mess that should be overhauled instead.
In rare cases, the semicolon is actually useful and is not an instrument of reader abuse. Mostly, these cases involve lists of items that can’t be separated with commas because they contain commas. If you want to list cities with states, you need semicolons to show the larger divisions: “The company has offices in Butte, Montana; Ithaca, New York; Galveston, Texas; and Eugene, Oregon.” Without these semicolons, the cities are on the same level as the states: Butte, Montana, Ithaca and Texas are equals in a sentence that lists not four offices but eight. So in these cases, semicolons deserve to live.
The other job of the semicolon is to connect closely related independent clauses. That’s a fancy way of saying that they let you squish two sentences into one. “We watch TV on Tuesdays; we go out to dinner on Fridays.” The question is: Why would you want to? Sure, occasionally it might result in a better organized paragraph. But far more often this semicolon is used for the sole purpose of showing off that the writer knows how to use semicolons.
I never realized how obnoxious this semicolon could be until a few years ago when I was editing a travel article about spas. In it, the writer quoted a spa worker as saying, “Now shower; and your skin will feel like new.”
Why that semicolon? Why?
Semicolons in single-sentence paragraphs are annoying, too.
“There were three cookies in the jar; I ate two.”
Yes, this semicolon connects two closely related independent clauses. But hasn’t the paragraph structure already taken care of that? There are just two clauses in the whole paragraph, so obviously they’re related. In instances like this, the writer should forget about showing off that she knows how to use semicolons and ask herself what’s best for the reader. Usually, the answer is shorter sentences.
– June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.