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.
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.
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.