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Rescuing the Semicolon from Punctuation Pirates

March 21, 2013

You know it; I know it: we live in an age of reckless punctuation usage, where perfectly good punctuation is abandoned or abused, ignored or perverted. The greatest victim of this abuse is probably the semicolon, that once-great denizen of the compound sentence. Being a writer and editor of a certain age, I’ve been around long enough to see error evolve into ignorance and acceptance. Now, in this wild age of anything goes—in texting, IMing, e-mailing, print on demand, and all other forms of quick communication—I’m beginning to think that what was once wrong is becoming the new norm and rule.pknn466l

How to Use the Semicolon

Semicolons should be used in three situations:

  • To separate long phrases or clauses in a series, primarily because the phrases have their own internal punctuation
  • To divide two independent clauses in the same sentence, usually because they’re related and you want to indicate a stronger relationship between them than a period (i.e., two sentences) would
  • To separate two clauses joined by an adverb such as “however” or “that is”

Lots of grammar books and online sites can explain the proper use of semicolons, and some may actually provide more examples of proper usage. (It’s really the same three rules, when you get right down to it.) I suggest The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary,, or a fun site called The Oatmeal.

If I read some book or article that errs by using the semicolon instead of the comma, I usually assume the publication didn’t bother to hire a copyeditor or proofreader, either of whom should know better. The University of New Mexico Press, for instance, really ought to have spent a few hundred dollars on a copyeditor for Hollywood Shack Job, a truly poorly written book by Harvey Kubernik that could have been much better. In the sentence below (found on p. 157 of said book), you not only get an idea of how to screw up a sentence by misusing a semicolon, you also learn how an interesting topic can be rendered deadly boring by a guy who couldn’t finesse the written interview if his life depended on it:

And then there’s our countrymen from Canada; Joni and Neil Young—and the whole thing just snowballed in a way and it was almost like your job, a good portion of the time, was to get out of the way.

The same kind of error surprises me occasionally in more respectable publications, like the essay in the New York Times Book Review from a few weeks back. Jay Ruttenberg discussed “the fallen rock star [who] gets an encore in contemporary fiction,” yet he seems to have fallen asleep back in grammar class. “I was a recovering rock critic; a music nerd at rest.” The second clause in that sentence is far from independent, so the punctuation should be a comma. Tsk tsk.

Will Error Become Accepted Usage?

The primary abuse involving the semicolon that I see is when a writer inserts a comma—that Jack of All Trades for the conversational pause—between two independent clauses. Here’s the thing: commas need conjunctions (and, but, or, and the like) to separate clauses; they work with conjunctions—as partners—to introduce new clauses. Semicolons act as dividing lines between independent clauses, but they do it alone, without needing conjunctions as partners.

At first this misuse of a comma appeared mostly in ignorant high-schoolers’ essays and in remedial freshmen college compositions. Teachers and professors would dutifully correct the errors and mark them down a grade. Then that comma-as-semicolon started appearing in business letters and memos, third-rate publications and hometown newspapers, suggesting those college students never should have passed remedial composition. And in the communications workplace, I began having arguments with fellow editors who thought the comma-as-semicolon was fine “in informal usage” or “in dialogue” or somesuch nonsense.

Now I’m seeing them in all sorts of middle- and high-brow writing, the pinnacle (for me) of which is the rampant misuse in Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novel, Bring Up the Bodies. As much as I admire Mantel’s writing and enjoyed her two historical novels about Thomas Cromwell (the first of the two is Wolf Hall, which also won her the Booker Prize), I found myself quite vexed by the comma-as-semicolon throughout the book. About halfway through the book, I began jotting down the instances I found (no doubt reading over some, as the book really is quite good), and I listed at least 30 cases. Here are a couple examples:

He said, she can be laid to rest in Peterborough, Peterborough is an ancient and honourable place and it will cost less.

You must give it at Lambeth, Norfolk will not come to me, he will think I plan to put a sleeping draught in the claret and convey him on board ship to be sold into slavery.

Look at you, all fleshed out in your gown, an ogre would eat you roasted.

In each of these instances the commas should be changed to semicolons. I cannot believe any author could seriously convince me of some exception to the rule of using the semicolon between two independent clauses. Yet as I read Mantel’s book, focused as I was on the semicolons and commas, I discovered several instances where the comma-as-semicolon seemed to stand in for the missing conjunction. Other situations in grammar allow punctuation to be substituted for words or letters that are understood as part of the sentence or structure. Apostrophes replace missing letters in contractions (don’t, isn’t, doesn’t), and declarative sentences regularly omit the subject “You” (“Leave me alone!” instead of “You leave me alone!”). Is it possible that a new usage, one developed from the expediency of our hurried, modern communication, has found a way to change the rules for semicolons and commas?

Here are more examples of the comma-as-semicolon from Mantel’s book, but note how the conjunction (coordinating or subordinating) is understood in each:

And some things he doesn’t need to be told, he can see and hear for himself. (“because” is understood; p. 221)

Come, uncle, take a crumb from my hand, you are wasting away. (“for” is understood; p. 190)

We find him pacing, hungry for conflict, we ask ourselves, does he know why he is here? (“and” is understood; p. 333)

And then there’s this example from the London Review of Books, a quote from Building Stories by Chris Ware that the reviewer mentions (for different reasons):

I’d already acceded [sic] so much to Phil, it was all I had left. (“that” is understood)

I’ve begun seeing more and more of the comma to divide two independent clauses, and now I shall record how many are possible stand-ins for the understood conjunction. As a writer, editor, lexicographer, and grammarian, I could be convinced of this new usage. Maybe. Could you?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2013 11:20 p.03.

    Um yes, actually; the semi-colon is an overused punctuation mark; especially by the dumb; the fool; and dim bulb graduates of parochial schools; who were taught by aging cranky nuns that failure to use semi colons in every sentence would lead to demands of lifetime celibacy; an easy answer to an easy problem!

  2. CJW permalink
    February 28, 2014 11:20 p.02.

    The differences most apparent in your examples seem to be emotional. The ones you see lacking semicolons are in every instance much less tender than the ones you forgave. So perhaps your attention was drawn not strictly grammatically but also emotionally to your choices. I would very much like to see a comparison of mistakes caught by readers of novels and those of drier or more scientific books.

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