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Save the Semicolons

by Jennifer Smith

Pity the poor, abused semicolon! No one understands him. He’s overworked and yet unsuited to the jobs he performs. Won’t you please help make this world one where happy little semicolons do their jobs and no more?

Okay, so I’m not Sally Struthers. But few people use the semicolon properly. So what? Who cares?
As technical editors, we care—or should. Our job is to communicate the message clearly. Because this punctuation mark has specific significance, using it incorrectly can confuse the reader and delay the delivery of meaning.

How to use semicolons

In normal text, semicolons are used to
  • Join two closely related independent clauses in a single sentence:
I ran to school; my friend only walked.

  • Join two closely related independent clauses linked with a conjunctive adverb:
I ran to school; however, my friend only walked, and so he was late.

  • Function as a serial comma in a series with elements containing internal commas:
red-, orange-, and blue-colored ladders; slippery, shiny lengths of silk; and red apples.

I’m avoiding the hot buttons and holy wars, such as whether a semicolon actually is a conjunctive adverb (yes, I’ve heard that) and whether it’s okay to put a correlative conjunction after a semicolon.

What semicolons are not

Misconceptions about semicolons abound.
  • A colleague once was told (by her manager, no less!) that semicolons are just longer pauses. That explains sentences like this:
As a group, farmers are more informed about the complexities of government subsidies and the tricky methods to use to achieve a bigger slice of the government pie; especially the dairy industry.

  • In my own work, I often see run-in lists prefixed with a semicolon. I wonder if semicolons are perceived to be kinder, gentler colons: Not quite so definite and so less “bossy.”
The previous case histories support the following conclusions; cats are smarter than dogs, dogs like people, and cats are decorative.

I’ve also seen semicolons sprinkled in apparently at random, almost like decoration. I think people think using semicolons makes them look smart.

Why it matters

I can picture somebody out there saying: “But if you know what it means, then what’s the problem? You’ve communicated.” Oh yes, the old function vs. fuddy-duddy rules argument.

The problem with errors like these is cognitive dissonance. If you expect a semicolon to signal one thing, and then, after reading the text, discover that it signaled something else, you actually pause for a moment to adjust your understanding of the sentence. This small pause delays the delivery of meaning.

Sometimes you never figure it out. In extreme cases, incorrectly used semicolons can be so confusing that it requires extraordinary efforts—including the intervention of the courts—to determine what is meant. See Senescal et al. vs. Bolton, 1893.

Protecting the semicolon from abuse

While editing, if you’re not perfectly sure that a semicolon is used correctly, maybe you should just rewrite to avoid the semicolon altogether. It’s better to have a straightforward, understandable sentence than a “correct” one that causes that mental pause.

You can also work to publicize the plight of the semicolon and how to use it correctly. Apparently, this is an actual movement: I was charmed to find two separate “Society for the Preservation of the Semicolon” groups on Facebook, plus a Semicolon Preservation Society and a Semicolon Appreciation Society.

Won’t someone please think of the semicolons! If not for their own sakes, then for the reader’s.


Page last modified on Friday, April 29, 2011 01:55:19pm EDT
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