By Dorian Box
It happened suddenly, too many years of deleting semicolons that editors substituted for periods.
I was nearing the end of page edits for a recent article, converting the hundredth new semicolon back to a period, when it hit me: “Enough already with the freaking semicolons!”
I’m not just suggesting they be used sparingly. I say go all the way. Abolish them.
I’m not a punctuation bigot. I hold no grudge against umlauts or even asterisms. I admit to having a few hard feelings toward commas, but enjoy emdashes, exclamation points and spending long weekends with parentheses.
But my true love is periods. My mother was a newspaper reporter and journalism professor from the old school who preached short and terse. It was good advice then; it’s even better today in our attention-challenged world.
Did you notice that? I used a semicolon above where some writers would insert one. But why? The only purpose of a semicolon is to connect two separate thoughts that could be separate sentences.
Says one book on punctuation: “The primary function of the semicolon is to connect two complete (thematically similar) sentences, thereby making them one.” Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. Nevertheless, the author defends semicolons as “probably the most elegant of all forms of punctuation.”
In 2006, James J. Kilpatrick attacked the above defense of semicolons with a vengeance:
What hokum! What bosh, what baloney, what bilge! The semicolon is a belly-up guppie in a tank of glorious Siamese fighting fish. It’s girly. It is not just probably the most useless of all forms of punctuation. It is absolutely, positively the most useless of all such marks ever invented. Its sole legitimate function is to separate individual elements in a listing of linked elements.
Wow, and I thought I disliked our little comma-wearing-a-period-as-a-hat friend. Kilpatrick, the fiery conservative journalist who died in 2010 at 89, was never one to hide his feelings. (His aggressive debates with Shana Alexander on 60 Minutes led to a hilarious trash-talking parody by Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin in the early days of Saturday Night Live.)
What do you think? Legions of great writers, icons from the past and current favorites, regularly used or use semicolons. A legitimate argument I see for occasional semicolons is they don’t break up separate but connected thoughts as abruptly as periods. True, but question-begging to a degree because it comes back to the same issue. If they’re separate thoughts, why connect them in the first place?
A good guideline for novice writers is to avoid sentences of more than fifty words. If you’re struggling with a sentence, it might be because you’re trying to cram too many words and thoughts into it. Consider breaking it in two, or even into threes. Some sentences and thoughts do call for more words, but a fifty word-max is a good rule of thumb.
Dang. A “find” search of Psycho-Tropics turned up two semicolons. The sneaky devils cleverly hid in a piece of song verse.