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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.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:50 AM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

It's not just the semicolon that's being left behind in the American preference for informality; capitalization at the beginning of sentences, and periods at the ends of them, are disappearing on sites all over this very internet. Don't let me continue; it's just so awful.

There's nothing _inherently_ wrong with semicolons; as with most things, it's the context in which they're used that determines whether they're a good idea. The semicolon causes a certain narrative suspension between the first and second clauses whose connotation is not entirely captured by a full stop or by comma+conjunction. Thoughtfully used, this can be just the ticket. When editing, I ask myself two questions. First, does the semicolon _have_ to be there? IOW, if we substitute, say, a full stop, do we lose that certain suspension that the semicolon adds? Often we don't, I find. Second, is the resulting sentence of conjoined clauses simply too long? Even if a semicolon is used appropriately, if the resulting sentence takes up an entire paragraph, perhaps some reengineering is in order. That said, I edit technical material where elegance is distinctly subordinate to readability, including for those whose native language might not be English. One of our goals, therefore, is to emphasize sometimes boringly straightforward prose. :-)

Could someone please explain this semi-colon AND dash business. I saw it once in a Guardian head;-- it was shocking.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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