DIE, SEMICOLON, DIE!

I hate semicolons.

There, I said it.

As a copy editor, it has been both a joy and a grinding labor to give manuscript after manuscript a thorough, even complete semicolostomy. Behind me lay the corpses of thousands upon thousands of these insidious guerilla insurgents in the punctuational war against clarity, agents of the twisted ideologies of pretense and confusion.

Whew.

It felt good to get that out.

Now, a couple other smart people who have railed against semicolons…

Why do I avoid, as much as possible, using the semicolon? Let me be plain: the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. I pinch them out of my prose.

Donald Barthelme

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons… All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Kurt Vonnegut

I hereby proclaim us the Three Musketeers vs. Semicolons!

By now you might be wondering a couple things, including where this mutant creature came from in the first place. In “A History of Punctuation,” Florence Hazrat sheds a little light on that subject:

The superstar of European printer-intellectuals, the Venetian Aldus Manutius, invented the semicolon for the Italian poet Pietro Bembo’s dialogue De Aetna (1494), allowing new ways of sophisticated pausing. Just quite when and how to use the mark puzzles us to this day, giving rise to angry dismissals and offensive expletives. The 20th-century writer Kurt Vonnegut called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” The lack of boundary and definitiveness makes readers anxious. The American author Edward Abbey called them a “storm of flyshit on the typescript.” But, when readers were asked about their favourite punctuation mark in a 2012 survey in the Swedish journal Språktidningen, the semicolon won with a 10 per cent lead on all other signs.

Goddamn Swedes, at it again. I like this paragraph mostly for the second barrage from Mr. Vonnegut, but at least now we know it’s been “allowing new ways of sophisticated pausing” for 527 years. A lot of terrible things have been around longer than that.

If for no other reason than to keep this blog educational, here are the four accepted rules for semicolons, via The Punctuation Guide, so if you do insist on keeping them in your writing you can at least use them correctly:

Between independent clauses when a coordinating conjunction is omitted

The upperclassmen are permitted off-campus lunch; the underclassmen must remain on campus.

Though there they give a perfectly fine example of how to avoid the semicolon…

The example above could be recast with the conjunction but, in which case a comma, rather than a semicolon, would be required.

The upperclassmen are permitted off-campus lunch, but the underclassmen must remain on campus.

I would rather see the but than than the semicolon.*

Between independent clauses linked by a transitional expression

Heavy snow continues to fall at the airport; consequently, all flights have been grounded.

Or, you could just write: All flights have been grounded due to heavy snow at the airport.

In lists with internal commas

The new store will have groceries on the lower level; luggage, housewares, and electronics on the ground floor; men’s and women’s clothing on the second floor; and books, music, and stationery on the third floor.

If you have a list this complicated in fiction you’re info dumping and need to stop doing that. Break this shit up, thereby eliminating the legal necessity for the hated semicolon.

In elliptical constructions

In 1992, Starbucks had fewer than 200 stores; in 2002, almost 20,000.

This might be the only one that actually stands, though it still feels more appropriate in journalism than fiction. Still, what would Hemingway say about anything described as “elliptical”?

And in any case: Between 1992 and 2002 the number of Starbucks stores increased from fewer than 200 to almost 20,000.

So that’s four for four that can easily be rewritten to be just as clear, if not clearer, without that evil thing, which has shown up in the most peculiar places, like Jean Cocteau’s Intimate Relations (Les parents terribles):

Grandfather who collected semicolons. He counted the semicolons in Victor Hugo. He said: “I make it 37,000 semicolons in Les Misérables.” And then he started all over again in case he’d made a mistake.

But, Phil, you might still be thinking, the semicolon is perfectly fine, if used correctly, and can serve our writing in various ways. Shouldn’t we come to our writing ready, willing, and able to use any and every tool at our disposal to make our writing speak to our readers?

And to that I reply, Yes, actually, that’s exactly what we should do. Learn how to use all the tools, then bring all of them along every time you sit down to write, and use those tools carefully and with intent. Even, may God save us all, the semicolon.

—Philip Athans

* It’s okay if you laughed at that.

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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3 Responses to DIE, SEMICOLON, DIE!

  1. mjtedin1b379b87ce says:

    I don’t think there’s any sentence with a semicolon that can’t be written as two sentences.

  2. c says:

    I have noticed an uptick in my semicolon use since I went back to a college! I also tried to write a one-sentence story and kept throwing more semicolons in there, hoping it would work 😭 (it didn’t)

  3. Yes! When I teach business writing, I explain the independent clause rule but also point out that very few people use semicolons correctly. I hint that they can do without them.

    Alas, my publisher likes them and uses them.

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