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The semicolon won't bite you

Today, National Punctuation Day, you can thank Aldus Manutius, the Italian printer who originated italic type and the octavo book, for the semicolon, which he is thought to have reintroduced in the late fifteenth century. He borrowed it from Greek, where it had been used as a question mark.*

Today it oddly stirs passions. Many writers disdain it, because they think it looks ugly or old-fashioned or pretentious. Hemingway seldom wrote a sentence long enough to require a semicolon, and the commas and dashes in Faulkner’s cascading sentences create hardly a ripple.

You want the full flavor of the semicolon, you have to go back to the nineteenth century. Here’s a random sentence plucked from Carlyle’s French Revolution: “Guillotining there was a Nantes, till the Headsman sank worn out: then fusillading ‘in the Plain of Saint-Mauve’; little children fusilladed, and women with children at the breast; children and women, by the hundred and twenty; and by the five hundred, so hot is La Vendée: till the very Jacobins grew sick, and all but the Company of Marat cried, Hold!”

Ah, they’re not writing semicolons like that anymore.

Today—and here you can proceed without fear—we mainly use the semicolon in two ways.

Indicating a complex series: If the elements of a series have items separated by commas, we use semicolons to separate the elements, including the final one: Some, a great many, eschew the semicolon out of principle; some, an insignificant minority, employ it out of principle; and some, by far the great majority, are ignorant of it and indifferent to it.

Suturing independent clauses: If we join two independent clauses without a conjunction, we link them with a semicolon: People who use the semicolon regularly are the type who like to parade their erudition; people who shun the semicolon are the type who like to be seen as just folks.

Two cautions here. First, remember that syntax implies relationship. If you join two clauses with a semicolon, they should be of more or less equal value in meaning, and they should have a connection in meaning.

Second, two independent clauses linked by a mere comma constitute the dread comma-splice run-on, the bugaboo with which generations of English teachers have frightened little children, to little visible effect. Linking independent clauses with commas is commoner than spam in written dialogue, and the practice is to be found among all sorts of British and American writers.

If you write a complex series, you are obligated to use semicolons. Apart from that, most people can shun them without ill effect. They will only come into play if you write with a particular kind of architecture, with a degree of complexity of elements and relationships that requires careful articulation of the parts. Should you embark on a sentence of that complexity, the semicolons will be the breadcrumbs that help readers find their way back.


*For more on the semicolon, including speculation on how the telegraph contributed to its drop in popularity, see Paul Collins’s excellent article in Slate from 2008.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (15)


Jan Freeman's 2008 Boston Globe article on the semicolon is also well worth a look:

I have always loved the semicolon; I always shall.

Prosodically, the semicolon is akin to taking a deep breath; the pleasure is visceral.

The semicolon is so reem.

Two thoughts about semicolons. The first is by Geoff Nunberg, which echoes the sentiment attributed to Michael Kinsley in the _Slate_ article:

"People have the idea that mastering the semicolon is the acme of prose artistry, as if the mark itself could call a logical structure into being. As one grammarian put it, the semicolon is the mortar that joins two ideas into a greater one. But semicolons don't create a structure; they just point to one. It's nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it's nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one."


The second is by my friend Brett Zalkan, and is dear to my heart:

"Semicolons are like advanced positions in the kama sutra: not for everyone, and certainly not to be attempted by folks who don't have a grasp, so to speak, of the basics."

I love the semicolon. Put into writing, my thoughts often demand it; however, as a technical editor who has tested how well people understand the written word, I have encountered a great number of people who seem not to it in any of your three categories.

They simply don't understand the semicolon. They can't sort out the meaning of any sentence or phrase containing a semicolon.

And so, in my work—which is to produce writing that can be understood by as many people as possible—I can't use it.

No matter how appropriate it would be.


A semicolon will bite a stressed or careless newspaperman.

If there is time, a semicolon is another tool in my writer's belt. I live by accuracy, speed and clarity.

Simple sentences help me. Period.

The most illogical argument I heard against semicolons came from a newspaper editor, who said newsprint was so coarse that it wasn't easy to see the semicolon, so semicolons should not be used because readers would be confused.

There was no explanation of how readers were able to discern other small pieces of punctuation, such as the comma and period, without being able to see the semicolon for what it was.

Is a sentence with a semicolon called semicolonic? And if so, is one with a colon then colonic? Inquiring minds want to know.



By your reasoning, therefore a sentence w/ a period would be called 'periodic'.

Sounds like we may be venturing more into the realm of upper and lower gastrointestinal 'irrigation', w/ your terms "semicolonic" and "colonic', as opposed to defining actual newfangled sentence types. Although it's a funny notion.

Always cringed a bit whenever some TV news wonks would refer to our former Secretary of State under Pres. G. W. Bush as 'Colon' Powell. I'm pretty sure it's pronounced, 'Call-in', like Brit actor Colin Firth. No biggie. Just a little off-putting, in my view.

On a more serious note, one can't stress enough the importance of having both the sigmoidscopy and colonoscopy procedures, particularly for those folks w/ a history of colon cancer in their immediate family. I've 'experienced' both 'explorations', and fortunately there was no evidence of cancerous polyps, nodules, or lesions to be found.

Still recall, from perhaps a decade ago, then-morning show co-host , Katie Couric, having a live/ on-air colonoscopy, to publicize (and personalize) the importance of this potentially life-saving procedure. She even opted not to go completely under anesthesia, so she could commentate while going through the procedure, which could be visually tracked on a large viewing monitor.

As much as Couric was mildly criticized by some for this bold display of a rather intimate medical procedure, most viewers applauded her for hopefully increasing the broadened awareness of this often silent killer---colon cancer---- and how if caught in its early stages can be treated and cured.

Couric's relatively young husband had earlier died from late-stage colon cancer, so for Katie this dread disease had a most personal, and sadly, tragic significance.


P.S.: ---Not liking this current notion of paying to get onto The Sun's online site, one bit. %$*#@$% . (My Scots-Canadian thrift is coming to the fore. HA!)

IMHO, the "You Don't Say" blog shouldn't have a monetized quid pro quo requirement. I can see where news content, and regular columnists' fare might have some fee structure attached, but most internet blogs, to my knowledge, are completely wide open to the greater blogosphere, w/ no shekels changing hands.

So much for FREE-dom of the press.

Alex, I was going for the plumbing humor all along (you didn't exect subtlety from me, now did you?), and by my reasoning a sentence which overuses both colons and semi-colons is a high colonic.



"High colonic", indeed!

I had a 'gut' feeling that you were 'plumbing' the depths of scatological humor there, w/ your semicolonic/ colonic musings.

Definitely deserving of at least a modest belly laugh, or two.

As detective Sherlock Holmes replied to his trusty partner's query, " It's 'alimentary' my dear Watson."


Alex, I believe that Colin Powell's name is properly pronounced CO-lynn--not the usual
"Call-in" pronunciation most people use.


Hmm.... might that be a spastic "Co-lynn"? (Just joshin')

I think you are probably right on target there, Dahlink. Basically Powell's first name is pronounced as written, CO-lin. Not really that complicated.

I've often puzzled over the given name "Cecil", which as you likely know can be a woman's name, although it's more-often-than-not , a male appellation. Always sounded rather upper-crust British, toffee-nosed, and slightly prissy to me, but that's neither-here-nor-there.

I've heard "Cecil" pronounced as both 'SEE-sil' and 'CESS-il'; and gather that either is quite acceptable.

Cecil Rhodes and Cecil B. de Mille are two famed Cecils that come immediately to mind.

Our Picky, I'm quite sure, would be able to add some clarity here, but I suspect he is still out-and-about-hither-thither-and-yon. I would guess being tuned into the internet is the furthest thing from his fertile mind at the moment HA!


Oh, Alex--you hit close to home with that last comment. One of my grandmothers was named Cecil. She had a sister named "Walter," which my generation thought was even worse. I once asked my grandmother why she didn't add an "e" and call herself "Cecile," but that never occurred to her. The family said SEE-sil (as in Cecil the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent, if your memories go back that far).

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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
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