They ought to declare open hunting season on semicolons – or at least on those who use them so incorrectly.
There is an alarming semicolon trend, contagious as the flu. It’s a shame they don’t have a shot for semicolonitis.
Some writers are using them, willy-nilly, as gussied-up periods or fancy-dancy commas.
In just the past six months, I’ve noticed semicolons popping up in prose the way those pesky “tribbles” multiplied and took over a Star Trek spaceship. A mere year ago, I seldom came across semicolons in anybody’s writing. May this fad fade quickly.
I’ve seen semicolons blatantly misused in press releases of every description, in school-district announcements, in city-government documents, in engineering reports, in story-idea submissions, in memos and in memoirs. Recently, I edited a compelling memoir manuscript by a local woman who used semicolons, incorrectly, in at least 100 places throughout the 300-plus typed pages. I told her, “Next time you get the urge to use a semicolon, don’t. Use a plain old period instead.”
The following are just a few examples of misused semicolons I’ve noticed in the last week:
“Here’s what I plan to do; visit the museum, have lunch and go to the picnic later.” (That semicolon should have been a colon.)
“The garden turned out lousy this summer; we are going to Mazatlan in October. (What does the garden have to do with Mazatlan? Why join those unrelated sentences?)
“Even though it’s a positive learning environment; we are still concerned about safety issues in our schools.” (The semicolon should have been a comma.)
A semicolon can be used mainly for two good purposes: to separate items in a list in which there are lots of commas and to “join” two closely related sentences (usually short sentences).
Here is an example of the first usage:
“The tourists visited London, England; Paris, France; Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece.” (Those semicolons help the reader to steer through a thicket of commas.)
Here’s another example in which semicolons serve that purpose:
“The seminar will feature David Doomsday, an expert on black holes; Marcia Marshan, who will interpret recent data from Mars; and Dr. Billy Brilliant, acclaimed astronomer noted for discovering two stars.” (Read that sentence without its semicolons, and it will likely cause you to stumble a bit over the phrases between commas.)
As those examples show, using semicolons to separate words between commas, is the best reason to use them.
Here are three examples of how semicolons can be used to join two similar sentences:
“The falcon sculpture is black; it is highly polished ebony.”
“Always do what is right; do not do what is merely convenient.”
“The tabby cat curled up on the carpet; the Siamese cat sprawled on the couch.”
Even though those semicolons are used correctly, the sentences would be just fine all by themselves, without any semicolons.
An Italian printer, Aldus Manutius the Elder, invented the semicolon in 1494, two years after Columbus set sail. Playwright Ben Jonson, in Shakespeare’s time, was the first to use that punctuation mark in a consistent way.
I always remind writers whose works I edit that punctuation is not salt-and-pepper to be sprinkled here, there or anywhere. Punctuation marks, rather, are the equivalent of road signs on a prose highway. Why should we care? Our language, spoken and written, is our vital communications link. We should try not to abuse it. That’s why.
I like writer Kurt Vonnegut’s sour-comic attitude.
“Here is a lesson in creative writing,” he wrote. “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing nothing at all. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Still, semicolons can be helpful, when used correctly. When in doubt, opt for the humble period.