Where’s the semicolon love?

This past weekend, there was an article in The Boston Globe about the suffering semicolon. Apparently, semicolon usage has dropped dramatically over the past few hundred years. To make matters worse, there are people out there saying some mean and hurtful things about these defenseless punctuation marks, calling them “girly,” “hermaphroditic,” and (gasp!) “utterly useless.”

Before this gets entirely out of hand, let’s take a moment to learn about the proper usage of the semicolon:

Use semicolons to link independent clauses sharing the same general ideas.

A semicolon indicates a longer pause than a comma and a shorter pause than a period:

It was dark and quiet out yesterday; I was very productive.
Our hike was long and arduous; moreover, it was 90 degrees out.

Use semicolons between elements when items in a series contain material that is set off by commas.

In this case, the semicolon acts as a “supercomma”:

This summer, I visited many cities: Hudson, Wis.; Shelton, Conn.; Newport, R.I.; Boston, Mass.; and York, Maine.

What’s so girly and useless about that?

10 Responses to “Where’s the semicolon love?”

  1. August 12th, 2008 | 3:29 pm

    I do hope you’re not speaking of OUR hike being “arduous”; it was fun! : P

  2. August 12th, 2008 | 7:34 pm

    Ha! It was the inspiration for that example ;) And yes, it was very, very fun.

  3. August 12th, 2008 | 8:46 pm

    Hooray! A tutorial on Semi-colons! I remember asking for one. Thanks for remembering.

    Now at least I know how to use them.

    We never did this in High-School English. We were too busy learning to analyze the color symbolism in the Great Gatsby. (God, I hated my English Teacher!)

  4. August 13th, 2008 | 8:21 am

    @Friar - I planned a post on semicolons for this week based on your earlier request. Then I read the article in the Globe over the weekend and voila! Apparently you’re not the only one who never learned how to use them properly. Hope this helps! (your high school English teacher sounds like a doozy.)

  5. August 13th, 2008 | 10:16 am

    Hmmm, I have mixed feelings!

    I used the semicolon a lot (firm advocate) and I do believe it can be put to good and necessary use. However, while the misuse of it is abominable, so is the overuse. I think that since sentences these days are shorter, there is less necessity for the semicolon. There’s nothing wrong with putting a period in the above two examples you give in your first section of usage.

    I’ve actually found that by cutting out most of my semicolons, I often end up with even more effective sentences and, thus, writing.

    I don’t understand, though, the accusations that semicolons are girly and hermaphroditic. Those sound as though someone thinks they’re being clever. Bah. They are also certainly NOT utterly useless. Confusion often ensues without them in certain cases!

  6. August 13th, 2008 | 12:14 pm

    Hi, Steph -

    I don’t disagree with you. Semicolons are overused, and often improperly. I think because semicolons denote a sense of formality, they get a bad rep for being “girly.” But in certain instances, they’re our only choice. Personally, I think they’re very useful — and also kind of fun :)

  7. August 13th, 2008 | 4:57 pm

    I LOVE semicolons. Oh dear, I’m a grammer geek, aren’t I? Technically, a semicolon should be used before ‘therefore’, ‘however’, etc. I do it, but I rarely see it used in this manner. Long live the semicolon!

  8. August 13th, 2008 | 6:47 pm

    Semicolons “girly”? I’ve never heard of such a thing! They’re absolutely gender neutral, although they may be considered adorable by some, perhaps. Ok, I think they’re adorable, but I don’t get out much.

    A true story: I once gave my phone number to a guy in an internet chat room because he used a semicolon correctly in our chat window. In fact, I’m chatting this minute via Google IM with that same guy, who has been my friend since 2002.

  9. August 13th, 2008 | 7:45 pm

    @Urban Panther: You love semicolons; therefore, you are a grammar geek. (That makes two of us!)

  10. August 14th, 2008 | 12:10 pm

    @Beth: Great story! Semicolons ARE adorable — are so are people who use them correctly ;)

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