Save the Semicolon!

chocolate

Would you stop eating chocolate, just because there are other sweets?

So I get a text message from a friend saying that Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t like semicolons.

Vonnegut’s latest book, “A Man Without a Country,” is apparently a collection of his articles over the last few years. The man can write (and he can think as well), so it’s probably a pretty good book. But he has some nasty things to say about the venerable semicolon.

“I have never used semicolons. They don’t do anything, don’t suggest anything.”

And, nastier: semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites,” giving no meaning except to show that the author went to college.

No! And again I say no!

Say that you don’t like them if you want. Say that your audience might get sidetracked by seeing one. Say that people don’t understand how they should be used. But it’s outright wrong to say that they carry no meaning. (Vonnegut later backtracked a bit in the very same book, but let’s set that aside so as not to cool my righteous outrage.)

This reminds me of an argument I once had about whether “um” can have meaning. As in the following exchange:

“Hey, do you have the flux capacitor?”

“Um, no, I thought you had it.”

It may not be easy to define, but it carries meaning. Yes, I’m stating that outright and not even bothering to back up my claim. “Um” can convey meaning.

So does “like” (even though parents may hate it) in the following:

“We were going, like, 80 miles an hour when we ploughed into that yak.”

“Like” means that the 80 isn’t an exact indication of our speed. It may not even be close. But we were going pretty fast.

The semicolon carries meaning, and unlike “um,” that meaning is extremely easy to define. The problem is that it’s dropping out of use (especially in the U.S.), so fewer and fewer people are able to extract the meaning.

As top-shelf writers like Vonnegut continue to take arms against the semicolon, they fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less it’s used, the less people will know how to use it, or read it. When people don’t know what it means, then it means nothing.

By God, we’ve got to stop that from happening. Iraq? Abortion? Elections? Pffft. Choose your side on the Great Semicolon Debate. You’re with us or against us.

I’m not the first or best by far to carry the banner for the abused semicolon (for example: Pause Celebre), but I’ll do my bit now, even if Vonnegut thinks I’m pretentious for doing it. (The man has made a career of popping hot air balloons, but this time he’s popped one that should stay afloat.)

How to Use the Semicolon

The semicolon is properly used in only two ways. It’s simple. I assume that even Vonnegut would agree with one of them, so I’ll state that one first.

To connect items in a list when the items themselves have commas:

“The misguided haters of semicolons include Hemingway; my friend, John; E.B. White, a meticulous writer; and Vonnegut, respected, but too egalitarian for his own good.”

Now, I’m not saying that the previous sentence is a work of art. But imagine it with only commas and you can see why we need a semicolon.

Not into the whole “imagination” thing? Here it is:

“The misguided haters of semicolons include Hemingway, my friend, John, E.B. White, a meticulous writer, and Vonnegut, respected, but too egalitarian for his own good.”

Is Hemingway my friend, or is John? Or is it some unnamed friend? Who’s the meticulous writer? (Obviously not the author of that sentence.)

Again, I assume that even the big V would appreciate the need for semicolons in that sentence. Otherwise, he’d have to rewrite the whole thing, and why bother when the semicolon elegantly handles it?

Now on to the more contentious use of the semicolon.

To connect two complete thoughts that are related.

Let’s say you have two things you want to say: “I went” and “I ate.” As a writer, you have to decide whether these things are related, and if they are, how closely. You can link the thoughts together:

1. “I went and I ate”

2. “I went, and I ate.”

Or you can separate them:

3. “I went. I ate.”

Those are all fine. Option one gives us two thoughts as one big thought. They’re sewn together and can’t be separated.

Option two has some wiggle room. They’re linked very closely, but the going and the eating are distinct. They’re two parts of the same body.

Option three separates them completely. Going and eating are not entwined in any way. In fact, maybe you’re answering two unrelated questions.

Each option is available to you. You have your choice.

But what if you want to say that going and eating are linked, but not quite as tightly as in option 2? You want them to share warmth, but not fluids.

Hemingway would choose option 3 and hope that the reader will make the leap to relate them. They’re close to each other in the paragraph, so maybe that’s good enough.

But we don’t have to live with “good enough.” We aren’t forced to choose between implied relativity and complete integration.

We have…the SEMICOLON:

4. “I went; I ate.”

It’s a pause, but not a full stop. It connects the ideas, but doesn’t fuse them. It does better than hope that you grok a relation, but it doesn’t beat the thing on your head.

And it has meaning and value, and shouldn’t be tossed aside to keep the ignorati in their comfort zone.

Without the semicolon, we have writers who contort and strain to link independent ideas. They want one sentence, but can’t think of a decent way to do it:

“The Marshmallow Man fears fire, his flesh being easily roasted.”

Yuck. Let’s reframe it:

“The Marshmallow Man fears fire; his flesh is easily roasted.”

Ah, the power of non-Vonnegut.

But don’t abuse it! Show how two ideas are connected, don’t just declare them with punctuation. It should be no more than a signpost letting readers know that they’re on the right track. If I read your semicolon without understanding why it’s not a period, then something’s gone awry.

And now, an appeal.

An Appeal

Please use the semicolon.

Don’t abuse it by putting it everywhere, ’cause that’ll just add fuel to the haters’ fire. But use it and keep it as an option for future writers.

Don’t let the semicolon go the way of “whom,” a word with meaning but, through dis (and mis) use, is relegated to formal writing and the exceptionally pretentious.

Without your help, future writers will lose a color from their palette. Can you imagine a rainbow without incarnadine? I can, but that’s not the point.

(Link to ‘A Semicolon’s Dream Journal.’)

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27 Responses to “Save the Semicolon!”

  1. JB
    February 18, 2007 at 11:24 am #

    After our conversation I finished the book. On page 134 he’s near the end of a grouse and he writes:

    “[I]t’s no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these [imagination] circuits. Now there are professionaly produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. Now there’s the information highway. We don’t need the circuits any more than we need to know how to ride horses. Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone’s face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.

    And there, I’ve just used a semi-colon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.”

    I frikkin’ loved this book man. It might bug you, though, because he does repeat himself a few times, when he’s complaining about how we’ve ruined the world. If it’s a collection of articles, it’s kind of reminiscent of your Vonnegut Issue. Still, I loved it because of stuff like this:

    “If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

    It’s like he’s in my HEAD, man.

  2. Shane
    February 18, 2007 at 11:26 am #

    The semicolon is an important note in the musicality of language and words. The fact that it is primarily used these days as part of a winking emoticon does not distract from this.

  3. DaveC.
    February 18, 2007 at 2:43 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve ever used the serial semicolon; it justifies its existence just fine for me in linking two related thoughts. In football terms, I imagine the semicolonated sentence as an end-around play. Thought number one drops back and everyone expects it to hand off to the tailback, but instead there’s this dramatic beat as thought number two comes across the backfield, takes the ball, and continues its east/west run before charging forward into the action. It’s not a reverse, as that would suggest a shift in the direction of the play. You can’t pull that off with a comma or conjunction. I give Vonnegut a pass on this though. He’s entitled to be iffy on a few things.

    • Dee
      November 16, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

      Well, I come from a nation where you play football with the foot so I stopped reading that comment after the first sentence.
      Here’s a scenario where a serial semicolon can be used: My preferences for breakfast include cereal and milk; sausages, bacon, and fried eggs with juice; and sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes, and black beans with juice.
      It’s just easier to group the different items that go together in the three lists when you separate the lists using a semicolon.

  4. JB
    February 18, 2007 at 5:07 pm #

    Put the wiimote down!

  5. admin - Rob
    February 18, 2007 at 6:41 pm #

    Press Release: Rob officially gives Vonnegut a pass.

  6. Kevin
    February 20, 2007 at 10:04 am #

    I must comment. It’s a compulsion.

    1) Thank you for the lesson in the use of the semicolon.
    2) Thank you even more for this piece of imagery: “You want them to share warmth, but not fluids.”
    3) While not as out of it as Mailer, Vonnegut is a senile old man who has lost his way. http://darulislam.info/forum/archive/index.php?t-956.html

  7. admin - Rob
    February 20, 2007 at 10:55 am #

    You’re welcome! Wasn’t sure about the fluid thing…. 😉

    I don’t know whether Vonnegut is senile, but what I’ve read of the interview, I’d say that his views are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. Some of what he says rings true, and some I disagree with. Just like always.

    But the article you link to is a little bit off on some points.

    Saying that Vonnegut used “drug culture slang” because he said that suicide bombers must feel a high is stupid. People were saying “high” about martinis long before they did it about LSD. No one ever claims that Dean Martin was in the drug culture.

    Not that it matters. Anyway, it may be true that they feel a high.

    To call his book, “a collection of writings critical of US President George W. Bush” is misleading. It’s a collection of writings, mostly autobiographical. Some of them may be critical of Bush, but that’s a different thing. Mind you, I’ve only read ABOUT it.

    For Vonnegut to say that sucide bombers are brave also doesn’t sound senile to me. I’ve heard a lot of people say it. I disagree, personally, because I think they literally believe that they’re going to paradise. Not brave, but getting out of jail early.

    A lot of sane people would agree that it’s sweet and honourable to die for what you believe in. Just because we don’t believe in what they believe in doesn’t mean that the statement isn’t true.

    And I disagree with him if he thinks that they should be considered soldiers.

    But to dismiss him as senile because I disagree with him is to make a serious mistake in assessing the other side. It’s the same mistake that some leftists make when they call conservatives beer-drinking, Nascar-watching, Billy-Bobs.

    In any case, I apparently have to pay to see the whole article. Which I’m not going to do. But I’m gonna assume that I just disagree with him on some stuff.

    I also disagreed with his stance about WWII Dresden. He wrote about that 1969, and I don’t think he was senile then, either.

    And I disagree with him about semicolons!

  8. Kevin
    February 20, 2007 at 11:19 am #

    I don’t call him senile because I disagree with him. I call him senile because he seems to have forgotten all the things he has said in the past.

    While I might have disagreed with him about Dresden, I didn’t think he was feeble minded. He could, I believe, accurately be described as pacifist.

    But he’s not pacifist any more. He’s chosen a side in the war, it’s just not the same side I’m on. He considers suicide bombers courageous and honorable, and gives them encouragement in their war tactics. Note that the site I linked to is an Islamic forum where the poster was taking encouragment that even some non-Muslims were refuting the “sellouts”.

    So perhaps I’m being too generous when I assume that he’s gone senile and forgotten his whole anti-war stance.

  9. BruceS
    February 20, 2007 at 1:56 pm #

    Like Kevin (I think), I found the fluids bit viscerally amusing. I also laughed about your defense of “like” and “um”, and successful use of “grok”.
    It’s reassuring that someone can take on a real conflict these days, when so many people are hopelessly stuck on such meaningless crap as global worming (I take care of my own dog, thank you), wars over racks (wet t-shirt contests should suffice, I say), and such like. As long as this Kirk guy is getting rid of semicolons, why don’t we get rid of the rest of punctuation as well, and we can all write like drunken Bill Faulkner!

  10. admin - Rob
    February 20, 2007 at 2:42 pm #

    Well, he’s always said he was a pacifist, and he also always said that WWII was a just war and he enlisted as soon as he could. So maybe pacifist to him doesn’t mean the same as it does to you (and me).

    I don’t know exactly what he’s saying now that suggest that he’s forgotten anything. And anyway, I don’t agree with some of how you characterize what he’s saying now.

    But it doesn’t matter to me, because I don’t much care what his stance on terrorism is. I doubt he’s senile or feeble-minded, but I haven’t read the actual interview. If I cared, I’d pay to read the real thing, because I almost never believe the slant that third-party Web sites give to interviews.

  11. admin - Rob
    February 20, 2007 at 2:43 pm #

    BRUCE!

    Nice comment! I always hated Faulkner.

  12. Kevin
    February 20, 2007 at 3:18 pm #

    Bruce, it wasn’t just amusing, it was near perfect! Check out the progression:

    They’re sewn together and can’t be separated.
    They’re two parts of the same body.
    They are not entwined in any way.

    You want them to share warmth, but not fluids.

    What’s really great about this imagery is that the last three items make me rethink the first item. All but the first are a kind of personification. So maybe the first is personification, too? Maybe Rob’s all “Silence of the Lambs” on us?

    I thought it was outstanding.

  13. BruceS
    February 20, 2007 at 6:27 pm #

    Rob: I don’t hate Faulkner at all. In fact, I rather enjoyed _As I Lay Dying_, and thought he did a good job of expressing the insanity of the boy. I just feel free to rag on just about anyone, holding nothing sacred except my own exalted self. For that comment, I ws feeling even sillier than usual. BTW, I noticed earlier today that a certain insane lying Nazi has poked up his head once more. The forum may resume some of its amusement, if I resume some of my hypocrisy.

    Kevin: you’re right—it was brilliant. I hope Rob hasn’t been stocking up on fava beans or anything like that.

  14. admin - Rob
    February 20, 2007 at 7:52 pm #

    I blush.

    I can’t tell you how nice it is to know that you notice the little bits here and there that take me 8 drafts before I give up and publish the best one I’ve got. Seriously, thanks.

    Couple more of those and I’ll be happy to agree that anyone you say is senile. I crave the praise, man!

    [Hey, just for clarity, folks, the Nazi that Bruce speaks of isn’t on THIS site.]

  15. BruceS
    February 21, 2007 at 11:46 am #

    While I resent anyone clarifying my murky rantings, Rob is right. The Nazi is on a Uselessnet group Rob and I both used to spend time on; he was the group’s dominant kook for a while, disappeared suddenly, then came back about yesterday.

  16. admin - Rob
    February 21, 2007 at 2:13 pm #

    Nice semicolon, Bruce.

  17. BruceS
    February 21, 2007 at 6:36 pm #

    Knew you’d like it. I sometimes do things like that, and similar here, hoping it will be noticed and maybe even laughed at.
    And now for something completely different. Our local paper (Rocky Mountain News) had a bit about Holocost survivors. Apparently, as their numbers decrease, some are making efforts to preserve accounts of their experiences. They seriously worry that, in just a few decades, revisionist denyers will be vastly more credible. Having met and talked to two men who saw the camps and occupants, and given the great supporting material and records, I find it amazing that *anyone* can honestly argue that the Holocost didn’t happen, or that the numbers are greatly exaggerated.

  18. Scott
    October 2, 2007 at 7:51 pm #

    I know this is a little after the fact, but in your final example concerning the marshmallow man, the second clause is actually explaining the first independent clause, so the proper punctuation would be a colon.

  19. Katherine
    March 19, 2008 at 7:40 pm #

    What about using a semicolon to connect two questions? I cannot find any information about this ANYWHERE!
    For example:

    “Besides already knowing how to live without and make-do, what other commonalities existed between the successful families; how were they able to stay together and grow stronger during wartime, while so many other families splintered apart?”

    Is it grammatically legal to join those questions with a semicolon? If so, is it even advisable?
    Thank you for your help.

  20. admin - Rob
    April 6, 2008 at 10:59 pm #

    Scott: I’m sorry but I disagree. The second phrase isn’t explaining the first. The first stands entirely on its own as a sentence, as does the second phrase.

    Just because another phrase gives more information doesn’t mean that it needs to be preceded by a colon.

    Katherine: I don’t know the grammar, but it seems a bad idea to combine the questions in that way. I think the assumption is that the question sort of waits for an answer, so I’d give it its own mark and then start a new sentence for the next one. That’s my opinion.

  21. Kelly
    May 11, 2008 at 9:29 pm #

    No:

    “Besides already knowing how to live without and make-do, what other commonalities existed between the successful families; how were they able to stay together and grow stronger during wartime, while so many other families splintered apart?”

    Yes:

    “Besides already knowing how to live without and make-do, what other commonalities existed between the successful families? How were they able to stay together and grow stronger during wartime, while so many other families splintered apart?”

  22. admin - Rob
    June 4, 2008 at 11:40 pm #

    Kelly, I appreciate that you’ve come up with an example of a place not to use a semicolon.

    But I don’t think that means that it shouldn’t be used in other places.

  23. Kelly
    July 17, 2008 at 9:51 am #

    Late to the party, again. But someone just went to my blog from my comment, so I thought I’d check back in.

    I had a months-long experiment not using semicolons at all, and can now report that you never need them, except in seriation, and even then you can normally write around it if sufficiently motivated. Done with that. I’m using them again, but I am careful to not be facile about it and use semicolons to imply a relationship I am not able to detail or defend. In a lot of uses, the semicolon is an advanced form of insinuation, after all. So I may well edit many of them out of my students’ writing, but it won’t be because they can’t be used well.

  24. admin - Rob
    July 18, 2008 at 9:59 am #

    You never need colons either, if you want to write without them. The question isn’t whether you need them, but whether they’re appropriate and helpful in many cases. Which they are.

  25. Kath
    January 5, 2009 at 7:59 am #

    I read it; I agree. 🙂

  26. Jeffrey
    May 26, 2010 at 1:47 am #

    I like and use semicolons.

    I also noted and smiled at the warmth vs. fluids argument.

    Finally, I know well the feeling of publishing the last draft you can stand writing.

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