A Wild Run Through History: Semicolon Use

The semicolon has always been a punctuation mark shrouded in obscurity. In high schools, students sometimes graduate without knowing how to use a semicolon. It could be asserted some people go their entire lives without knowing how to or properly using a semicolon. Why is it people shy away from the mark?

Lynne Truss offers some common excuses in her oft-cited book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, “They are old-fashioned. They are middle-class. They are optional,” (Truss, 109). While the semicolon is an older mark, it is certainly not out of style. Though it is not nearly as popular as it once was, Truss argues the semicolon indicates a mastery of English punctuation; it takes style to use. And yet, for being one of the commonly avoided punctuation marks, it brings incredible possibilities to writing and has experienced an incredible journey throughout history. Semicolon use is an art.

What a semicolon really does is let the reader know the author has a sense of style. The semicolon is, primarily, meant to indicate two independent clauses are closely related enough they deserve to be in the same sentence (Morenberg, 227). It indicates a theme or grammatical similarity (“Using the Semi-colon and Colon”). In the sentence, “The tense woman grinded her teeth; she always does while sleeping,” the two clauses could stand alone. But they are closely connected enough to justify semicolon use. It is used when there is no conjunction connecting the sentences (Truss, 121). For instance, “He saw Mary-Jane; and Mary-Jane saw him,” would be incorrect.

The relationship between semicolons and conjunctions should not be confused with the relationship of the semicolon and conjunctive adverb. When two complete sentences are joined with a conjunctive adverb like “however,” “nonetheless” or “therefore,” it is not only appropriate it is most correct. For example, “She enjoyed the book, however, she did not enjoy the film,” is incorrect. The two sentences with a conjunctive adverb must be joined with a semicolon or separated entirely with a period (Morenberg, 113).

The place where a semicolon is really necessary is when sorting out “comma fights” (Truss, 125). For instance, “George, Sam’s father, Lynn, Jane’s mother, Chuck, Jill’s father and Lena, Chuck’s friend, all got together this weekend,” is incredibly confusing. How is one to know how to interpret that sentence with all the commas cast about willy-nilly? The semicolon is necessary to sort out the sentence. “George, Sam’s father; Lynn, Jane’s mother; Chuck, Jill’s father; and Lena, Chuck’s friend, all got together this weekend,” is a much clearer sentence thanks to the semicolon.

With all of the potential uses a semicolon has at its disposal, how is it the mark seems to appear less and less in popular writing? Actually, the declining use of the semicolon is not as recent as many may think. The mark has always been the subject of debate. Its uses have changed dramatically over centuries. Medieval scribes used a mark resembling a semicolon to abbreviate words (Truss, 111) while Ancient Greeks used the semicolon to indicate a question (Collins).

The first printed semicolon is credited to Aldus Manutius in 1494 (Truss, 111) and after that, semicolons spread across Europe (Collins). However, even after the semicolon took off, its proper usage was still muddied by rules such as those published in Benjamin Martin’s Bibliotheca Technologica, “In writing we use several Stops or Pauses… The Comma (,) which stops the Voice while you tell one. The Semicolon (;) pauseth while you tell two,” (Martin, 159). Thus, shortly after the mainstream use of the semicolon began, there was already confusion telling when to use a semicolon. This method of determining when to use punctuation marks by the length of pausing went “unquestioned for a long time” despite the fact that it is “complete nonsense,” (Truss, 113). Simply, modern high school and university students are not alone in their befuddlement of when to use a semicolon or simply disliking the mark altogether. For centuries, people have been fed mixed messages on the mark’s proper use.

Semicolons rose in popularity up until the mid-19th Century when Edgar Allen Poe and grammarian Justin Brennan both voice negative sentiments regarding the mark’s frequent use. Another blow that came to the semi-stop in the late-19th Century was the rise of the telegraph – when punctuation marks cost the same to transmit as words (Guy). People from all walks of life began to favor short, unpunctuated sentences to save a buck (Collins).

Then, throughout the 20th Century, the semicolon seemed to fade away even more as it began to be regarded as a punctuation mark for the “eggheads,” as one New York mayor put it (Collins). More outcry against semicolon came throughout the century and as recently as 2002, the bashing continues. Author Kurt Vonnegut referred to semicolons as “hermaphrodite transvestites” that have no purpose and only “show you’ve been to college” in a lecture at Tufts University (Timerman).

Yet through all the negativity semicolons still cling to QWERTY keyboards just below the letter “P” in the 21st Century. Grammarians and others still say it “is no more complicated than a comma,” (Guy). Thanks to the Internet, the semicolon is now seeing somewhat of a modern revival. Author and writer Christine Fischer Guy says it is because the web has allowed semicolon lovers to “come out of the woodwork.” In her 2010 article, “Why the Semicolon is the New Period”, she says, “My fondness for the semicolon isn’t nostalgic. I like its subtlety, and there’s room in modern society for that,” (Guy).

Despite great authors decrying the mark’s use and misleading instructions on how to use it being published for centuries, the semicolon survives. It probably has experienced the most interesting journey throughout history out of all the punctuation marks. As long as there are people who continue to use the semicolon, it will remain a fixture in grammar and English study.

Works Cited

Collins, Paul. “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, LLC, 20 Jan. 2008. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/06/_.html>.

Guy, Christine Fischer. “Why the Semicolon Is the New Period.” Bruner Business Communication, 24 Feb. 2010. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <http://brunerbiz.com/punctuation/why-the-semicolon-is-the-new-period/>.

Martin, Benjamin. Bibliotheca Technologica: Or, a Philological Library of Literary Arts and Sciences. London: Printed by S. Idle for John Noon, 1737. Print.

Morenberg, Max. Doing Grammar. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Timerman, Jordana. “Author Gives Wisdom on Life, Writing & Politics – Vonnegut Is Vonnegreat.” Tufts Preview: News. Tufts University, 2 Nov. 2002. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <http://preview.admissions.tufts.edu/Vonnegut03.html>.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham, 2006. Print.

“Using the Semi-colon and Colon.” University of Leicester. University of Leicester, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2012. <http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/grammar/grammar-guides/semicolon>.

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