Thursday, June 2, 2011


     Let's talk about semicolons.  The other day I said to a friend of mine "I'm having a semicolon problem."  She thought I was going to discuss some issues I was having that were kind of related to my colon.  Like maybe it was a semi-colon problem, and a semi-duodenum problem.  She expected me to talk about poo. 
     This one time, however, my problem was not poo related.  It was punctuation related.  The semicolon often confuses people.  Kurt Vonnegut had this to say about them:
"First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."
I don't completely agree with that sentiment, but I think it does serve as a fitting warning.  When used properly semicolons are great.  However, when used incorrectly, they make the writer look plain idiotic.  Also, they aren't really ever necessary.  If you stick to short sentences and aren't attempting to write beautiful prose, you can get away with never using them.  And in many cases, it's best to do so.
     What I've come across is that people believe in a punctuation rank structure.  They understand a period comes at the end of the sentence.  They kind of understand when to use commas and when they don't, every fifth word or so satisfies their whim.  But then a complex sentence needs to be written- something with a list in it, or worse yet, a list within a list.  Oh heavens, what to do?  What to do?  Clearly, the semicolon becomes their answer. 
     Here is an example I have used to describe improper semicolon use:
The colors of the rainbow are: red; orange; yellow; green; blue; indigo; and violet. 
Yet I have seen nearly that same sentence presented to me as though it were correct.  I have gone back and written it correctly and then been told it needs semicolons.  No, it does not.  Not in any way.
Why didn't you use semicolons here?
Because I'm not joining independent clauses.
The argument I got back was that the use of the colon made the subsequent use of semicolons necessary.  This is when the light bulb went on.  People actually think the semicolon is just part of a hierarchy.  They don't understand that it's just another form of punctuation; it's available for your use when joining two clauses.  It is not a more important comma, or a less important colon.  I think people use it when they think they've used too many commas but don't want to end the sentence. 
     I appreciate a good semicolon.  I appreciate all good grammar.  I'm not great at it, but I try.  I allow others to correct me and hopefully learn from it.  I may see a flash of red, but I calm down and put the lesson in my wheelhouse.  I also keep a copy of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style by my desk for reference.  I guess I'm just really trying to prove that I try, and I like to think I succeed more often than I fail.  The lessons I do not appreciate, however, are those from the aforementioned folks who really just do think a semicolon is the Lieutenant Commander of punctuation- not as common as the Ensigns and Lieutenant we call commas and periods, but with less clout than a Captain- the colon.
     The more I write, the more comfortable I become with semicolons.  I've artfully constructed a few things for my job, some of them containing semicolons.  Never have those semicolons been contained in a list. 
Why did you use a semicolon here?
Because I AM combining independent clauses. 
As a side note, I know and understand the guideline about using semicolons in really complicated lists, i.e. use a semicolon between items in a list or series if any of the items contain commas.  Yeah, ok, fine.  But the colors of the rainbow are not complex ideas that would necessitate semicolons for clarity so all you're doing by replacing commas with semicolons is proving you're not very bright but you are incredibly pretentious / douchey.  And I would argue that if the list is so complicated you end up with 10 semicolons in one paragraph, go back to the drawing board and figure out a more concise way to present that information.
     Punctuation is our friend.  It helps us communicate; it lets us present our ideas in a pleasing way.  How fun is it to read a paragraph or two and know exactly what the author is talking about?  So fun!  I'm sure I'll continue to have these semicolon problems- some people do not want to be taught.  I am, however, hoping to avoid any semi-duodenum problems.    

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