Linguistic Teaser

The Enigmatic Semicolon

Originally published, without the art work, in The Vocabula Review, Vol. 11, No. 7 (July 2009)

The Nature of the Semicolon

Humans are fascinated by hybrid beasts—chimeras, as they’re often called. World mythology is full of them. The most well known is probably the mermaid, sensuous woman above, muscular fish below. According to myth, she lures sailors to their death with lovely songs. A sailor, forgetting what he’s supposed to do, would find himself walking dreamily off deck, and drown. The semicolon has a comparable psychological effect.

This mermaid of the punctuation world—period above, comma below—is viewed with suspicion by many people, including well-known writers. George Orwell deliberately avoided semicolons in his novel Coming Up for Air (London: V. Gollancz, 1939). As he explained to his editor (Roger Senhouse) at the time, “I had decided … that the semicolon is an unnecessary stop and that I would write my next book without one” (quoted in George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, in Vol. 4: In Front of Your Nose, Jaffrey, NH: David R. Godine, 2000). Kurt Vonnegut had this advice for writers: “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (A Man Without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005).

Some modern usage manuals are also leery of the mark. Rene J. Cappon, writer of the Associated Press Guide to Punctuation (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2003), noted that “good stylists try to avoid it [the semicolon] as too formal; decked out, as it were, in a starched shirt and a black suit. You would do well to keep semicolons at a minimum. There usually are options.” Teachers admit that the semicolon is difficult to teach and even harder to learn. The award-winning English teacher Edgar Schuster advised teachers not to teach the semicolon. He regarded the mark as useless. “My advice to my own college students is this: If you think you might one day become a writer, see me and Ill do what I can to teach you a little about the semicolon…. You can definitely write well without using the mark” (Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

But the mark is also beloved by the learned. Its admirers are proud to admit that it’s an elitist mark. In her popular Eats, Shoots & Leaves (New York: Gotham Books, 2004), British journalist Lynne Truss praised the semicolon as a sign of sophistication. The renowned biologist Lewis Thomas confessed to having grown fond of the semicolon as he aged. With the semicolon, he gushed, “you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on, it will get clearer” (The Medusa and the Snail, New York: Viking, 1979). The Irish writer and cultural critic Trevor Butterworth extolled the semicolon as “a pause for ambiguity, amusement, complexity, doubt, and nuance,” adding: “If writing lacks these ‘genteel’ qualities, can we be all that surprised if it is either as dull as a computer manual, or as demagogic as a soapbox on Hyde Park Corner?” (“Pause Célèbre,” FT Weekend Magazine, September 17, 2005. ).

But the mark’s very seductiveness poses pitfalls for writers and readers. Theoretically, any two independent clauses can be joined with a semicolon, and you could produce a sentence of infinite length. But the longer the resulting configuration, the more difficult it is for the reader to untangle the relationships among the constituent clauses and to identify the main idea. An alert reader, unimpressed by the semicolon’s cachet, will realize that he’s about to sleepwalk off deck, and he’ll wake up, start from the beginning of the sentence, and try to make sense of it.

Consider this sentence from Sir Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “From Hope and Fear Set Free” (the constituent clauses joined by semicolons are numbered for convenience):

[1] Hence, to attribute conduct to the unalterable laws of nature is to misdescribe reality: it is not true to experience, verifiably false; [2] and to perpetrate such falsification—as most philosophers and ordinary men have done and are constantly doing—is to choose to evade responsibility for making choices or failing to make them, to choose to deny that to drift down a current of accepted opinion and behave semi-mechanically is itself a kind of choice—a free act of surrender; [3] this is so because it is always possible, though sometimes painful, to ask myself what it is that I really believe, want, value, what it is that I am doing, living for; [4] and having answered as well as I am able, to continue to act in a given fashion or alter my behaviour. (Isaiah Berlin, “From Hope and Fear Set Free,” in Liberty, ed. by Henry Hardy, Oxford University Press, 2002).

The sentence is Victorian in its elaborateness, which stems chiefly from close punctuation—a style characterized by a liberal use of commas and semicolons. The first three clauses could stand alone, as independent sentences. The fourth does not really form a clause but a very long verb phrase. Its infinitive, “to continue,” complements the infinitive, “to ask (myself)” in [3]. The crux of the meaning of this long sentence can be expressed in the following brief paraphrases:

[1] To attribute conduct to unalterable laws of nature is to falsify reality. [2] Such falsification is tantamount to evading responsibility for our choices, but evasion is itself a choice. [3] The reason evasion is a choice is that I’m able to ask myself what my own beliefs and values are, and [4] having answered that question, continue to act as before, or change my behavior.

In sum, the ideas expressed in the long sentence could have been expressed in separate sentences (with their modifiers intact, of course), and their complex relationships would have been preserved. The semicolon is unnecessary.

The Semicolon Is Often Expendable

The expendability of the semicolon is conceded even by its admirers. Decades ago, Gore Vidal observed that the semicolon “is seldom used nowadays in the best prose but I am still loyal to it” (“Speaking of Books: Making and Remaking,” The New York Times, Book Review Section, November 14, 1965). British journalist Lynne Truss affirmed that “a full stop ought always to be an alternative” to the semicolon (Eats, Shoots & Leaves, New York: Gotham Books, 2004). The American writer Noah Lukeman views the semicolon as a mark more suitable for creative writing. Otherwise, he argues, “The first thing to realize is that one could always make a case for not using a semicolon. As an unnecessary form of punctuation, as the luxury item in the store, we must ask ourselves: why use it at all?” (A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, New York: Norton, 2006).

The Semicolon Lacks Existential Value

The semicolon is a mark of nuance, and hence not always rule-governed. Unlike other punctuation marks, it is much more subject to the writer’s individual taste. If two independent clauses can stand alone, then, at the writer’s discretion, they may also be joined with a semicolon and combined into one sentence.

But when a writer decides to join independent clauses with a semicolon, he’s implying that the clauses so joined are in a close relationship All usage authorities agree that a “close” relationship between clauses justifies the use of the semicolon. Consider sentences (a) and (b):

(a) Genetic endowment alone cannot explain an individual’s abilities.

(b)  The environment interacts with genetic endowment to enable (or disable) the  expression of those abilities.

The writer who would choose to combine these sentences into one sentence, and link the constituent clauses with a semicolon, is implying that he (the writer) regards the two ideas as closely connected, as in (c):

(c) Genetic endowment alone cannot explain an individual’s abilities; the environment interacts with genetic endowment to enable (or disable) the expression of these abilities.

Thus, the semicolon’s expositional uses may be called into play solely from subjective considerations, for there are no objective criteria for defining “close” relationship: “Close” is not an absolute category. It’s relative, and thus open to different interpretations, which is why alternative versions such as those shown can and do occur. If punctuation were removed from Sir Isaiah’s sentence (quoted earlier), it is doubtful whether the sentence would be repunctuated identically by any group of speakers. Writers therefore enjoy considerable latitude in whether or not to use the semicolon in the first place, and in what meaning they ascribe to it when they do use it. In fact, good prose and received guidelines alike allow a comma rather than a semicolon to be used if the constituent clauses are “short,” but “short” is another relative category: No two writers will agree on what it means in every instance.

Prescriptive Accounts Offer Little Clarity

Prescriptive explanations of “close” are of little help in clarifying this matter, because they are silent on the precise nature of the relationship: Is it syntactic, semantic, or both? Some accounts implicitly shift the bases of analysis from writing and silent reading (the dominant modern reading style) to speech, relying upon prosodic considerations in explaining the semicolon’s function. “The main function of the semicolon,” say language expert Richard Lederer and writer John Shore, “is to indicate a pause more strongly than would a comma and more weakly than would a period” (Comma Sense: A Fundamental Guide to Punctuation, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005). The implication of such a perspective is that the sentence will be read aloud—a reading style that was more common in an earlier era.

Prescriptive accounts are also limited in another respect: Typically, coordination is favored as an iconic example of a “close” relationship: The semicolon stands in for “and.” Less often, an adversative relationship (“but”) is advanced. These two relationships are presented either explicitly, or implicitly through examples given to illustrate general principles. But as I’ll soon show, many more types of relationships (barely acknowledged by authorities) are negotiated by means of the semicolon. It’s no wonder, then, that decades ago the critic J. Donald Adams attributed the decline of the semicolon (and the colon too) not only to the growing informality of modern writing, “but also…because too many writers are uncertain and confused about their proper use” (“Speaking of Books,” The New York Times, Book Review Section, December 8, 1957).

Actual Usage Shows Wider Functions of the Semicolon

Uncertainty and confusion are understandable, because when you look at actual usage, a great many relationships—not only coordinative and adversative—are expressed in clauses joined by the semicolon, but these relationships are rarely mentioned by usage authorities. Moreover, unless the semicolon is propped up by explicit verbal cues (for example, conjunctions or conjunctive adverbs), the reader must infer from either the immediate or wider context what relationship holds in a particular sentence. In addition, the reader cannot know for sure whether his inference will agree with the writer’s intended meaning! As a result, a writer allowing this mark to rule imperially in a sentence compels the reader to do hard interpretive labor in order to extract meaning from the sentence.

The eminent language authority H. W. Fowler (who used semicolons profusely) saw no problem here: On the contrary, he regarded clauses joined by semicolons as “far more restful and easy—for the reader, that is—than the style that leaves him to do the grouping for himself” (The King’s English, Oxford University Press, 1906). Thus, in Fowler’s view, the really hard labor lay in deciding whether or not clauses should be joined or separated in the first place. And only the writer could make this decision. Apparently, Fowler took for granted the reader’s ability to elucidate the meaning of the clauses so joined. But this cannot be taken for granted. In our day, one of the few authorities that explicitly warns writers to do the work of elucidating is Robert O. Grover, ed. of the Style Manual of U.S. News & World Report (Washington, DC: U.S. News & World Report, 2001): “Avoid merely stringing ideas together with semicolons when their relationship needs more explanation.”

Unfortunately, very skilled writers use the semicolon in exposition to join a wide range of relationships, which, if not clarified by explicit verbal cues, are ambiguous at best. The range of possible relationships encompasses not just coordination and contrast (antithesis), but also cause, emphasis, explanation (amplification), inference, and result (consequence). Moreover, it is the clause following the semicolon that hints at the nature of the relationship, but it is up to the reader to extract the relationship and make it explicit. The relationships noted are so common that you’ll find one or more of them in any sample of extended exposition you read. For convenience, I’ll illustrate with only a few examples from a single work by the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene (orig. publ. 1976; republished by Oxford University Press, 2006).

Cause:  “Obviously no animal can afford to spend infinite time threatening; there are important things to be done elsewhere” (p. 76).

Reworded with cause made explicit: Obviously no animal can afford to spend infinite time threatening, because there are important things to be done elsewhere.

Contrast (antithesis):  “Survival vehicles don’t replicate themselves; they work to propagate their replicators” (p. 254).

Reworded with contrast made explicit: Survival vehicles don’t replicate themselves; on the contrary (or instead), they work to propagate their replicators.

Emphasis (more forceful restatement): “Another aspect of the particulateness of the gene is that it does not grow senile; it is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred” (p. 34).

Reworded with emphasis made explicit: Another aspect of the particulateness of the gene is that it does not grow senile; indeed (or in fact), it is no more likely to die when it is a million years old than when it is only a hundred.

Result (consequence): “Wynne-Edwards’s interpretation of this extreme territorial behaviour is…that the outcasts ‘accept’ that they have failed to gain a ticket or licence to breed; they do not try to breed” (p. 118).

Reworded with result made explicit: Wynne-Edwards’s interpretation of this extreme territorial behaviour is…that the outcasts ‘accept’ that they have failed to gain a ticket or licence to breed; as a result (or consequently), they do not try to breed.

How to Deal with the Semicolon Today

Our age is fast-paced and impatient with crafting or reading long documents. We’re also comfortable beginning sentences with conjunctions, and we’re quite at home with sentence fragments. Thus, regardless of our attitude toward the semicolon (admiration or distaste), these changes in our habits of writing and reading would alone make the semicolon decline by default. In addition, much more content is now crafted specifically for online reading, and the electronic medium imposes constraints on typography, including punctuation. As the authors of one reputable web style guide point out, “Semicolons can get lost on screen, so use them sparingly. If a comma or a period can just as legitimately separate the sentence, use them instead” (Gerry McGovern, Rob Norton, and Catherine O’Dowd, The Web Content Style Guide, New York & London: Financial Times/Prentice Hall, 2002).

The fact that we remain capable of expressing complex and even nuanced clausal relationships without using the semicolon probably provides the strongest evidence of this mark’s lack of real functionality. Its obligatory uses are now considerably reduced.

For example, the semicolon remains mandated to separate clauses if at least one of the clauses contains an internal comma. Here it serves essentially as a place-holder for the comma, which would otherwise be used. In scientific writing, which remains replete with long sentences containing multiple clauses, the semicolon is a great aid to comprehension. However, as Janice R. Matthews and Robert W. Matthews point out, scientific writing is tending toward shorter sentences (Successful Scientific Wtiting: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences, 3rd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2008). Short sentences are not the semicolon’s favored domain.

The rule is also frequently relaxed in a sentence of any length, and the comma is used instead, provided the resulting sentence remains clear—as in the following example, where a comma, not semicolon, precedes the coordinating conjunction “and” even though the leading clause contains an internal comma:

“In the nineteenth century, measles was the major killer of young children, and in many African countries today it remains the highest cause of death among children” (R. C. Lewontin, Biology As Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA, New York: HarperPerennial, 1991).

The semicolon also retains a number of strictly technical, nonexpositional uses in mathematics, chemistry, genetics, law, computer programming, bibliography, and lexicography.

In sum, those uses of the semicolon that are the least nuanced, subtle, subjective, or ambiguous are the ones that will probably survive in the future. Recall, though, that it is precisely such uses over which admirers and detractors of the mark have bickered. They haven’t been concerned with whether or not the semicolon should be used in the etymologies of dictionary entries or in bibliographic citations. The mark’s critics bemoan the fate of the reader who could be easily lured to interpretive death by seductive misconstrual. Admirers, on the other hand, thrill to this very possibility, confident that they’re intelligent enough to outwit seduction. Cultural shifts are fast making both camps anachronistic: The mermaid’s watery abode is evaporating. In the future, she’ll have to learn to survive in shallower waters.


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