Standing up for the semicolon
British writers are addicted to a practice that causes American grammarians to recoil in horror: They link independent clauses with a comma. In Britannia, the comma-splice run-on sentence causes no shrieks of dread. Neither, increasingly, does it on these shores.
But for the squeamish, She punctuates properly, it’s no great feat begs to be corrected. With a coordinating conjunction — She punctuates properly, and it’s no great feat — or with a semicolon — She punctuates properly; it’s no great feat.
But the semicolon has fallen out of popularity, neglected, ignored, even shunned. Oh, you can occasionally compel writers to resort to it in a complex series, but in general they shy away from it like a vegan at a bull roast. This reluctance may have something to do with the pronounced American preference for informality: "No semicolons here, dude; we left them behind in Europe, just like we junked aristocracy and teaching Latin to schoolchildren and dressing like adults."
It’s a pity. The semicolon is still useful for sentences that involve complex, what do you call them, thoughts.
Nicholson Baker gives the semicolon its due in "The History of Punctuation," a review essay of a book on that subject from The New York Review of Books, reprinted in The Size of Thoughts. He even devotes some admiring space to the 19th-century penchant for combining the semicolon with the dash. (Semicolons combined with dashes! A guilty pleasure, like Strasbourg pate.)
But those palmy days are gone for good; the semicolon survives, but in an attenuated state, preserved temporarily from extinction by that dwindling band of writers and editors who also struggle to breathe a little life back into whom.