A Punctual Defense

This morning, I was met with a wonderful surprise in my inbox: an email from a friend regarding semicolon usage, one of my favorite topics! (Yep, this post is headed down a path of punctuation. Click away if you must.) She works for a respected public relations firm in a major American city.

What are your thoughts on the semicolon? This is a serious question…my colleague uses them in nearly every other sentence and it makes me cringe. A recent example:

“Our clients were quick to point out when they were visiting Sweden; the majority of new building development utilized green technologies as a matter of course.”

I mean, is this even correctly used? Shouldn’t there be a comma instead of a semicolon?

Do you think they are going the way of the dodo or do they still have a concrete place in written English? Really curious what you think.

First of all, I am a huge fan of the semicolon; I think it holds a very important place in written English; and I definitely don’t think it’s going extinct any time soon. But it’s obviously highly misunderstood, not unlike the word nonplussed.

In defense of the semicolonPublic relations is an industry that requires even more written communications than most, so you’d think that PR executives would either know how to use them or would simply avoid them altogether. Unfortunately, this person did neither.

My friend’s colleague is obviously woefully out of touch with the semicolon. He or she seems to think that it’s the opposite of what it is, that it’s a mini-comma instead of a super-comma. And, this is somewhat of a stylistic choice, but I wouldn’t have even used a comma in that sentence, though I would have inserted a “that” and gotten rid of “utilized” (ick): “Our clients were quick to point out that when they were visiting Sweden the majority of new building development used green technologies as a matter of course.”

That’s how the Brits would do it, anyway.

Semicolons have three distinct (and completely awesome!) purposes:

  1. To function as a mini-period or super-comma
  2. To separate items in a list in which it would be too confusing to use commas
  3. To link “however” or “but” clauses

1. A few paragraphs up, I could have said: “I am a huge fan of the semicolon. I think it holds a very important place in written English. I definitely don’t think it’s going extinct any time soon.”

This wouldn’t be wrong, but I think it comes across as kind of stilted, possibly even juvenile sounding, a la “see Jane run.” A comma would have created somewhat of a run-on sentence, acceptable on Facebook or IM, but not in any remotely formal context. I used three complete sentences that are pretty simple as stand-alones and very closely related—therefore, semicolon. It’s not unlike an m-dash (see previous sentence).

2. In the list scenario, I used it frequently at my previous job in cases such as this: “The expert panelists included Bob Jones, Ph.D., Director of Programming at ABC International; Jean Smith, M.D., Pediatric Neurologist at St. Joseph’s; and Beth Green, M.S.W., a family social worker for the city.” There are so many necessary commas in this list, that separating the items (people) by commas would make it cumbersome to read quickly. And you want to read it quickly because it’s so incredibly boring. Acknowledging these panelists in a recap of the event is obviously necessary (we don’t want to hurt feelings), but we need to do it as quickly and elegantly as possible.

Another example: “Today, I have to go get a tattoo; buy apples, toilet cleaner and beer at the grocery store; babysit my neighbor’s toddler; and then in the evening, go to my knife-skills class downtown.”

All of these elements are pretty unrelated, require different verbs and there is even a list within a list. So, semicolon.

3. The third purpose of the semicolon—linking disparate, sometimes opposing, ideas with a transitional word—is I think, the most boring use. However, it’s also the most important when defending the semicolon, because it’s the only one of the three uses in which it is not only the ideal punctuation, it’s the only one that will work.

Example: “I think of myself as somebody who loves beer; yet lager disgusts me.”

The two ideas, “I love beer” and “I hate lager,” seem to be opposites, but the trusty semicolon and the addition of “yet” creates a cohesive resolution.

Example: “I won’t go to the track with you because horse racing goes against everything I stand for; however, I’d love to get together soon. Maybe at the PETA rally next Saturday?”

“I’m not going to the track with you” could have been the end of it. But semicolon + however + comma throws the initial statement on its head: It’s not you, it’s the horse racing.

I hope I’ve made the case for the semicolon. Love it; use it with care.

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One Response to A Punctual Defense

  1. royaroo says:

    Things I adore: semicolons, serial commas, and you.

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