Monday, March 18, 2013

The Curious Case of the Semicolon

Some people have a very strong opinion about the semicolon. My husband loves it (and misuses it a lot). Others can't stand it. And some are just plain clueless as to how to use it.

Semicolon Lovers

On his website, The Oatmeal, blogger and cartoonist Matthew Inman calls it "the most feared punctuation on earth" and explains how to use it correctly, with the help of cartoons he created. He likes the semicolon so much, he even made a poster about it that teachers and grammar geeks of all sorts can buy on his siteprovided they like his particular sense of humor.

Author and physician Lewis Thomas loves the semicolon as well: "The period tells you that that is that; if you didn't get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer."

Semicolon Dislikers

American novelist Kurt Vonnegut has a very strong opinion against them: "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

Novelist James Scott Bell wrote an interesting blog post called The Great Semi-Colon Debate. He is clearly against using it in fiction, stating that "the semi-colon is a stone that causes the reader to stumble."

There is even a poll on about whether the semicolon is worth saving or not.

The Clueless

Some people aren't quite sure how to use a semicolon in the first place. If you're one of them, and especially if you're a big fan of British accents, I would recommend you watch this video by Grammar Monster. Another good resource to learn about the semicolon is the Grammar Book. For a one-page, easy-to-understand printout, visit ChompChomp. It's really not that hard. The semicolon is only used to link closely related complete sentences and to separate complex items in a list.


After reading all these articles and weighing both sides, I formed an opinion: the semicolon may be used (sparingly) in nonfiction, provided the writer knows how to use it properly; in fiction, it should be avoided as much as possible.

What do you think about the semicolon? Love it? Hate it? Don't care? I personally like it. It comes in handy to make winky faces. ;)

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