By Shundalyn Allen
Kids have a reputation for asking question after question: Why is the sky blue? What makes the sun hot? What happened to the dinosaurs? These inquisitive children grow into adults. Adults have a reputation for asking more difficult questions: What is the purpose of life? What brings true happiness? What is the definition of success? Among writers, there’s another enduring question: Why do we use the semicolon? This important question will be answered today.
The History of the SemicolonGenerally, Aldus Manutius receives credit for the invention of the semicolon. Though Aldus used the symbol for different purposes than today, the legend goes that he adopted a Roman symbol of a dolphin and an anchor as his printer’s mark. It seems appropriate that the inventor of the semicolon should choose to represent himself with a symbol that means “hasten slowly.”
A couple of centuries after Aldus began using it, other writers began to use the semicolon to help with reciting poetry or prose aloud.
A reader would pause longest for a period and shortest for a comma. A semicolon indicated an intermediate pause—shorter than a period, but longer than a comma. For this reason, semicolons were sometimes referred to as “hard commas.”
Have you ever read a play or a poem aloud? Do you pause longer at semicolons than commas? If you do, you are part of a rare minority. This function of semicolons is virtually obsolete, and some people think that the other functions aren’t strong enough to keep the semicolon in play.
How Semicolons FunctionSemicolons can perform a few tricks. One is to connect two related independent clauses.
I need to go to bed early tonight; my interview is early tomorrow morning.The semicolon indicates that there is a relationship between the two statements. And it is possible that you might pause more briefly for a semicolon than for a period if you were reading the sentences aloud.
Semicolons are also handy when an overabundance of commas might cause confusion.
I prefer strawberry, peach, or banana yogurt for my smoothies; plain yogurt with meat dishes; and lemon, lime, or vanilla yogurt if I am eating it alone.The semicolons make it easy to see the different divisions of the sentence.
Why Use Semicolons?If you thought the above section answered this question, consider this fun fact: All of the previous semicolons could have been avoided.
For example, you can rewrite lists as separate sentences, eliminating the semicolons.
I prefer strawberry, peach, or banana yogurt for my smoothies. For meat dishes, plain yogurt is best. If I am eating the yogurt alone, my favorite flavors are lemon, lime, or vanilla.Instead of using semicolons to connect independent clauses, you can use a conjunction.
I need to go to bed early because my interview is tomorrow morning.
Some argue that conjunctions are stronger and more precise than semicolons. For example, “because” indicates a cause-and-effect relationship between the two phrases.
I need to go to bed early if my interview is tomorrow morning.
When exactly is the interview? Here, “if” indicates uncertainty. Semicolons can’t convey the meaning that conjunctions can. In fact, they don’t carry any inherent meaning at all.
Opponents of the semicolon don’t frown on them simply because they fail to provide context. In an article on writing tips, Alan Milner suggests that news writers avoid semicolons at all costs. Good news writing is intimate, as if the journalist is talking directly to the reader. In a conversation, you need to keep your partner’s interest. According to Milner,
“Semicolons interrupt the flow of the conversation, at least in part because they usually introduce a series of subordinate clauses which is usually right around the point where the reader loses interest.”
Some writers find semicolons pretentious. The truth is, many people have no idea how to use a semicolon properly. Further, they don’t understand what semicolons do when they see them in a text. The people who do use them may seem like they are making a showy display of their smarts.
Is the Semicolon in Trouble?In 1995, one study compared the frequency of semicolons in texts from different periods. Researchers counted almost seventy semicolons per thousand words in eighteenth-century texts. However, by the nineteenth century, the average count was down to 17.1 semicolons per thousand words. What caused this significant decline?
Blame the telegraph. The longer the message, the more it cost to send it. Apparently, punctuation cost as much as words. Brevity became a part of the culture, spreading to journalism and modern writing. The finger also points at Romanticism, an intellectual movement that favored dashes, not semicolons, in its prolific literature.
The semicolon is definitely at risk of disappearing from modern literature. Let’s compare the semicolon with a more popular counterpart. English writers use question marks to signal that a question is a question, not a statement. The question mark is straightforward, easy to use, and nearly impossible to avoid. Semicolons, on the other hand, are disposable. Some people don’t like them; other people leave them out because they don’t know how to use them. Lately, animated smiley faces have made them obsolete even in emoticons!
If you favor semicolons, you may want to do what you can to keep them around for as long as possible. Use semicolons in your writing. Review and practice how to use them correctly. Never use semicolons capriciously, or you will lend support to the argument for them to be eradicated. Teach your children how to use semicolons. Don’t assume they will learn it from school. Read books together. Discuss how punctuation and grammar help the author tell the story. Finally, encourage them to use punctuation as a tool of creative expression when they write their own stories.
Adults are asking, “Will the semicolon survive?” If semicolon use doesn’t revive, the children of the future might be asking a different question: What is this funny-looking punctuation mark that combines a comma and a period? You might not be able to explain what happened to the dinosaurs, and you may not know what the purpose of life is, but at least you know the story of the semicolon.