A rant about semicolons

Aren’t you so excited to read this post after reading that title? And I just saw you do that scroll and realize how &*$%ing long this post is, too.

I happen to have strong opinions about semicolons. Fiction writing aside, I would like to discourage all use. Please, don’t use them. I am trying to be polite here. If you have never used a semicolon and never intend to, you can stop reading now. Thank you.

The thing is, semicolons are completely unnecessary. I see them primarily in two places: misused instead of a colon, and correctly used instead of period. See that colon in my last sentence? That’s where people sometimes want to use a semicolon instead of a regular colon, and in addition to being incorrect, it’s confusing.

The latter case is a bit trickier because people can argue that they are using a semicolon correctly. And they are as long as they are using it to connect two independent clauses. How do you tell if what you are connecting are independent clauses? If you can replace the semicolon with a period and they still stand alone as sentences, they are independent clauses and you can technically use a semicolon. But that’s exactly my point. If you can replace an oft-confused punctuation mark, the semicolon, with the granddaddy of all punctuation marks, the period, then just do it!

This is why I have to have my caveat about novels, poetry, and the like. Sure, there are stylistic reasons why you might want to use a semicolon to craft a story, paint a picture with words, or whatever creative writers do. But I am not a creative writer and I am not talking about creative writing. I am saying, don’t use semicolons in the everyday communication that we all participate in. I am talking about emails, presentations, web sites, proposals, and just about anything that most of us are out there writing everyday.

Two kinds of people in this world

I know some of you are thinking that you weren’t ever really clear about what the semicolon did, and never really cared because you’ve made it through life just fine without using them. Good for you. I hope that if you fall into this group, you haven’t been tempted to use a semicolon when you needed to introduce a list or provide more information about something. And if you have, know that you can use the much-friendlier colon and forget about the whole semicolon nonsense forever.

As for the other group: those of you who like to use a semicolon instead of a period. II know you paid attention in school and are proud of your advanced grammar. I know you think the semicolon looks and sounds nice, and that a period or a comma with a conjunction just isn’t the same. But think of the poor folks in the previous group, the people who aren’t really sure what the semicolon is about. Think about what happens when they read your beautifully crafted, semicolon-ed sentence.

We are cruising through your email/proposal/super-important-safety-instructions, happily absorbing all of the wisdom and insight you have to offer. Then we hit a semicolon. Bam! We stop thinking about what you have to tell us, and start thinking about the semicolon. “What does that mean? I never liked those things. What is it doing again?” We  move on, and after only a brief pause, but the damage is done. You have broken our focus from what you have to say, and instead drawn our attention to how you are saying it. That’s the last thing you want to do.

Instead, just use a period. Periods are our friends. We all know how to use periods and no one is afraid of them (avoiding obvious jokes here). If you find you right pinky reaching for the semicolon key, think of your poor reader and take the extra effort to reach down to the period key. The best part about periods is that they make your sentences shorter! Hooray! The best and easiest thing you can do to improve your writing is to use short sentences. This tip especially helps non-native-English speakers, by the way.

If you feel that your two independent clauses really do belong together in a way that is closer than mere geographical juxtaposition in a paragraph can convey, then consider the comma. The comma is almost as lovely as the period, or at least as well understood by the huddled masses. Give me a chance here. Using a comma opens up a much better world of communication style, and you’ll thank me in the end.

To bring your clauses together, declare to the world the nature of their union by using a coordinating conjunction. (Cue “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?”) You can use a coordinating conjunction like ‘and’, ‘or’, or ‘so.’ These words give more information about how the two thoughts relate to one another, which they really should if you think a period won’t do. So instead of “I ate a whole pie; I’m full.” Try “I ate a whole pie, so I’m full.” See how nice that is? And don’t forget the comma. You really do need it, even with the conjunction.

Or if you are feeling less democratic, you can subjugate one of your clauses by using a subordinating conjunction. A wha?? Stay with me. A subordinating conjunction, commonly ‘because’ or ‘if’, takes an upstart independent clause and makes it a dependent clause. Thus, it can no longer stand alone as a sentence. By adding ‘because’ to one of your clauses and tying it to the other, still-independent clause, you have removed the semicolon and provided more information about the relationship of the clauses. For example:

Because I ate a whole pie, I’m full.

or

I’m full because I ate a whole pie.

(I am not going to launch into a whole other rant about no commas before dependent clauses, but don’t do it. The subjunctive (“because”) is enough and a comma just adds an unneccesary pause. Commas are only necessary when the dependent cause precedes the independent clause in a sentence.)

The real point of my rant

Where I am really going with all of this is that to be successful, we must be successful communicators. And to be successful communicators, we must be transparent in how we write. The writing must never get in the way of what we are trying to communicate. Whenever a reader is drawn away from the content of your writing to your writing itself, you are taking away time and energy that the reader could be giving to think about what you have to say. Don’t waste their time.

As a professional writer, I would love it if people read my writing and thought, “Gee, what a well-crafted sentence. Such concise, clear style! Why, there’s no passive voice, and I especially like that she is using that comma before the ‘and’ in a list.” But unless I am getting an edit, that isn’t happening. Actually, I would really love it if people read my writing so quickly and easily that they were able to go about their days without giving the task of reading much thought. The purpose of my writing is to help people do their jobs better and easier, not to give people something to read.

Remember that people are almost never reading what you have to write just to have something to read (this blog excluded). They are trying to do something else: make a decision, find out when to pick you up from the airport, or how to get that &*$%ing error message to go away. Unusual punctuation, correct or not, detracts from that goal. So just don’t use semicolons. Please.

Postscript

I cringe at the thought of people reading a blog post about grammar because I know that they are going to find typos, grammar errors, and style issues. And because the content is about good grammar and style, some people are going to feel the need to comment or laugh and point of problems. Am a paranoid or what? But to those people, I just want to remind them that this is a blog post, written spur of the moment (on the train home after work), without edit, fact checking, or review. This is my raw writing, not a polished article.

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14 responses to “A rant about semicolons

  1. Such a passion for punctuation! I have a post I’ve been working on for weeks that is “he said, she said”- basically, how the way we tell a story defines ourselves. My other pet peeve with other people’s writing is the use of ‘ation words. I rewrote one coworker’s manual (they must have loved that!) replacing ‘ation words: the representation of the documentation in for sowith the orientation blah blah blah. Another pet peeve… excessive passive and watered down businessy babble. A friend of mine really suffers from this and I have to rewrite his emails- finally just pointed him to some punch cover letter web sites- mostly it’s not grammar but style points that get me.

  2. Another proper use for semicolons is in a list that contains elements which include commas, I believe.

    I love when people get riled up about grammar.

  3. That is true. But if you have a list that is that complicated, you really should be using a bulleted list instead.

  4. Genius post. Still, I am in love with semicolons, but I think it’s a rebellion thing that stems from seeing people connect two sentences together with commas ALL THE TIME. For instance: “I went to the store, I got some food.” or “I am so tired, however I need to study.” Who taught people to do this?

  5. A semicolon is not the answer to a comma splice! A period is! But thanks for calling the post genius.

    And I thought about doing a whole follow-up post about “however” and comma splices, and how people are taught to fix them with semicolons instead of two sentences. But I haven’t decided far off the deep end I want to go with this whole semicolon thing.

  6. ;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

    Though I may just be in a contrarian mood today 😉

  7. Granted, it’s not the answer all of the time, but people tend to connect sentences with commas where it rather merits a semicolon. Why not connect three sentences or four together with commas? Why do they connect some but not connect others? Something tells me they know where a semicolon should go (depending on one’s tendencies toward using semicolons, of course) but don’t exactly know if they should put it there in the end.

    Perhaps “I went to the store, I got some food.” wasn’t the best example in the world. One can almost always use a semicolon before “however,” though, wouldn’t you say?

    I think I went off the deep end a long time ago. At any rate, I’ve got a grammar blog too with a couple of other folks.

  8. Yes, you *can* use a semicolon before ‘however’. But that doesn’t mean you *should*. A semicolon before a ‘however’ will trip people up all the same.

    “I am still full. However, I will eat the whole pie.”

    or

    “I am still full, but I will eat the whole pie.”

    And both are much better stylisticly than:

    “I am still full; however, I will eat the whole pie.”

    And it goes without saying that this is very wrong:

    “I am still full, however, I will eat the whole pie.”

    But this is perfectly fine:

    “I am still full. I will, however, eat the whole pie.”

  9. Holy crap you wrote a blog about semicolons. I totally love you. I don’t agree with you on all of it because there is a need for the semicolon, in my opinion. But I do appreciate your effort to simplify punctuation. And I think most people don’t use semicolons correctly. Most of the reporters who work at this damn newspaper, in fact. 🙂

  10. Very nice site! Good work.

  11. I was going to point out the separation of comma-included lists, but someone beat me to it.

    I was going to say that you’d have to pry them from my cold, dead, typing fingers. Someone else also expressed love of semicolons.

    Instead, I will give the most important rule. No more than one semicolon per document.

  12. I am loving your blog. However, I need to teach a class on semi-colon usage. I plan on teaching them (1) no more than one use per document and (2) they really are just a way to mix things up a bit.
    I realize, I don’t always use correct grammar and/or punctuation, but, I also am not as passionate about it as you.
    Great work expressing your stance!

  13. I came across this when I was searching for semi colon worksheets for my students. I strongly disagree! You can’t use a period because often it doesn’t have the same effect.

    For example:

    Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. -Helen Keller

    Not the same as: Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.

    Another example:

    By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection which is noblest; second, by imitation which is easiest; and third, by experience which is the bitterest. -Confucius

    Now read this:
    By three methods we may learn wisdom. First, by reflection which is nobles. Second, by imitation which is easiest. And third, by experience which is bitterest.

    If you can’t tell the difference, then that’s where the problem lies. It’s not that you don’t know what a semi colon does but rather you don’t understand the more creative poetic aspect of it – it’s not just a punctuation anymore!

  14. I love that this post still gets readers after all these years and after this blog is long dormant. I haven’t read it in ages, but I still stand by words. Since N went to the effort to comment all these years later, here’s my reply:

    I think Helen Keller’s quote is just as powerful with a period, and possibly more so because people would be less distracted by the punctuation. As for the Confucius quote, you made it grammatically incorrect because those are not independent clauses. If that sentence were an into to a book I was writing called, say, “Learning Wisdom,” I would use a bulleted list to make the three points visually very clear. I would also fix the incorrect punctuation of the non-restrictive clauses by adding commas before them. Since I am assuming Confucius didn’t write this in modern American English, I feel comfortable with these editorial liberties in the translation.

    Finally, keep in mind that this rant applies specifically to everyday, practical communication, and not to, as I so condescendingly put it (only because I am so inept at it), “craft a story, paint a picture with words, or whatever creative writers do.”

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