Saturday, February 11, 2012

Semicolons-Which Side Are You On?

What is something that you love to hate? I love to hate spiders. Absolutely love to hate them and frequently dream of ridding the world of them. All you Charlotte lovers out there can just be quiet.

Here's something else I love to hate: semicolons. What did a semicolon ever do to me? Well, first of all it can't decide how it wants to be spelled. Is it semicolon or semi-colon? Pick one, own it, and be it. Why be so two-sided?

Actually the true reason that I hate semicolons is that I have never quite understood how to use them and do so on mad punctuation whims. Not smart. I used one on of of those silly whims in a class last semester--resulting in spectacular failure. My professor, who is most beloved and kind, gently told me, "There are seven people in this country who know how to use semicolons, and you are not one of them." Boo-yah!

I could have chosen to run and hide from this particular semicolonic episode, but instead I have become a teeny bit intrigued about the use and reason for this type of punctuation. I have been doing some sleuthing, talking to professors in the English Department, observing students in the writing center, and have managed to gather a bit of information that I am dying to share with you--and also get off of my chest because this is some serious baggage! Who knew semicolons were so controversial?

It seems that people either love or hate semicolons. There is absolutely no middle ground. Kurt Vonnegut, a famous author, has been noted as saying (rather flagrantly and I'm gonna leave out some words because they're a bit on the risky side), "Do not use semicolons. They are (bleep bleep) representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”

On the flip side of that in your face statement is the opinion of the President of EIU Bill Perry. President Perry, in the fourth part of an interview EIU Writes did with him last year, claims that the semicolon is his favorite punctuation mark.

So how exactly does one go about using a semicolon? Here is what the Purdue OWL tells me:

You can use a semi-colon to join two independent clauses. Joining two independent clauses this way implies that the two clauses are related and/or equal, or perhaps that one restates the other (see example below).

•Braveheart was definitely my favorite movie during the 1990s; in fact, it is my favorite movie of all time.

Use semi-colons between items in a list that already involve commas (example shown below).

•The sweaters I bought today were purple, blue, and green; yellow, white, and red; and pink, black, and grey.

The EIU Writing Center Webpage has a section entitled resources for writers with all sorts of excellent information. What else is on there?

A Punctuation Pattern Sheet (I really wish it said paper! Punctuation Pattern Paper, sigh I need that alliteration to continue) that gives more examples of semicolon use. If you click on this, Punctuation Pattern Sheet, you will link right to it!

Another of my most favorite professors, to remain nameless because the coolness level is already at 100% and I don't know if it can go any higher, says, "Writers should use semicolons sparingly since a writer's go-to sentence construction should be compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences. However, I enjoy the use of a semicolon when a writer connects balanced (in length) independent clauses that work together logically."

In the Writing Center we see all sorts of semicolon usage, and generally the students will tell us that they used it because it might impress their professor. This is when I say, "Don't do it!" A professor is more impressed when you have two strong sentences, not two combined kinda strong sentences.

In my opinion, one should use semicolons sparingly. This could be my experience talking, or it could be that they are unnecessary. Why not instead go with the dash? It's all personal preference and if you prefer the semicolon--make sure you really understand it before you use it. There is nothing worse than trying to appear smart to a professor and instead sinking into semicolon despair.

Love them or hate them the semicolon doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, perhaps it is time that I get over my fear and embrace them. How about you?


  1. I personally am very fond of semicolons. I like to think that I'm one of those 7 people that do know how to use them correctly. I recognize that they are a completely optional form of punctuation, but they're one I have always been attached to ever since I learned how to use them.

    I would not recommend in any circumstance replacing a semicolon use with a dash. A dash is used for something completely different. If you're going to replace one, I would simply use a period instead. A semicolon is used to combine two sentences that could stand alone as a combined thought, more or less stating that despite being two separate sentences, they connect to the same idea.

    As far as your hatred of semicolons you're not alone. Apparently Stephen King hates semicolons, and so did Hemingway, Orwell, and Edgar Allen Poe. So if anything you're in good company.

  2. @Big Joe 2,

    I appreciate your semicolon love. It seems that they are the punctuation that you either love or hate. I agree with you in regards to the dash, a simple period seems to work better. Although, I have fallen in love with the dash recently and have been using it more and more.

    I'm proud to know that I have "met" one of the seven correct users of semicolons! It seems, according to my professor, that you are few and far between. So, well done!