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June 22, 2008 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Who killed the semicolon? Paul Collins fingers a 19th-century culprit; Trevor Butterworth finds an American anitipathy to this troublesome punctuation mark. [previously] [via]
posted by Horace Rumpole (68 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I like semicolons; maybe it's because I'm a C++ programmer.
posted by Foosnark at 11:20 AM on June 22, 2008 [8 favorites]


I blame Katie Couric.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:22 AM on June 22, 2008


What? The semicolon is alive and well, and anyone who says otherwise is a lying *.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:23 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Who said the semicolon is dead? ;-)
posted by WolfDaddy at 11:28 AM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I still use the semicolon regularly (though not as often as parenthetical aside).
posted by Mick at 11:31 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


I had tought a semicolon was a colonoscopy that went but half way because thepatient's health plan insufficient for a full colon prob.
posted by Postroad at 11:32 AM on June 22, 2008


I had an English professor once who proclaimed that semicolons were dead, and the em-dash should be used instead in all instances. (I believe this was on the advice of William Zinsser.) I proceeded to use the semicolon out of spite, and still do.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:33 AM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Paul Collins fingers a 19th-century culprit...

;giggle;
posted by hojoki at 11:34 AM on June 22, 2008


"If I were linguistic emperor," says Michael Tomasky, who recently took over as editor of the unabashedly liberal The American Prospect, "not only would semicolons be mandatory, but we'd all be writing like Carlyle: massive 130-word sentences that were mad concatenations of em dashes, colons, semicolons, parentheticals, asides; reading one of those Carlyle sentences can sweep me along in its mighty wake and make me feel as if I'm on some sort of drug."

Yeah, that'll really help with my washing machine instructions.
posted by rokusan at 11:40 AM on June 22, 2008 [5 favorites]


Also:

.
posted by rokusan at 11:40 AM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Could someone please explain when it is proper to use a semicolon, but improper to use a dash?
posted by Afroblanco at 11:44 AM on June 22, 2008


This is ridiculous, a classic case of journalists running around looking desperately for some imagined "trend" they can try to hype into a "controversy." Talk about your confirmation bias: start with the bias ("I had long noticed a curious lack of semicolons in American print"), then go out and find random people to confirm it ("American writers, however, are not so easily seduced," meaning he dug up a quote from Donald Barthelme; "Ditto for Bill Walsh, a top copy-editor at The Washington Post" who also wrote something the author liked). It would be just as easy to assemble a series of quotations from people who like and use semicolons. Guess what? Some people do, some don't. But it's hard to get a publishable story out of that.
posted by languagehat at 11:45 AM on June 22, 2008 [14 favorites]


I like to use the semi-colon quite regularly in my writing; it is useful when you have two complete sentences that are closely related.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:46 AM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I abuse semicolons and em dashes to the point where I'm uncomfortable using periods sometimes. Ernest Hemingway I ain't.
posted by danb at 11:50 AM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


Could someone please explain when it is proper to use a semicolon, but improper to use a dash?

Generally, a semicolon can be used whenever you are joining two fully independent clauses (complete sentences, in other words). Generally one uses the semicolon when the clauses are closely related. Most of the time, when one uses a semicolon, a comma followed by "and" or some other conjunction will serve just as well, but the semicolon is more formal, and like the blog linked in the FPP says, indicates a slightly longer pause.

An emdash, which is the only sort of dash you should be using in punctuation in this manner, is most properly used for parenthetical phrases. Use the emdash when you want to set something off more strongly than commas but less strongly than actual parentheses--also, a clause set off by emdashes is generally more directly related to the main sentence than one set off by parentheses.

I haven't read the article yet, but I'm an American and I use semicolons all the time. I find them charming, really. Of course, I also habitually wear a fedora; I'm not exactly a standard sample.

I had an English professor once who proclaimed that semicolons were dead, and the em-dash should be used instead in all instances. (I believe this was on the advice of William Zinsser.)

Your English professor and whoever-the-fuck-Zinsser-is are both idiots.
posted by Caduceus at 11:56 AM on June 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


Could someone please explain when it is proper to use a semicolon, but improper to use a dash?

If you mean em dashes, they're usually not interchangeable, AFAIK: semicolons are used to separate independent clauses, or occasionally for serial lists; em dashes are used for parenthetical phrases.
posted by spiderwire at 11:56 AM on June 22, 2008


Or what Caduceus said.
posted by spiderwire at 11:57 AM on June 22, 2008


I really need to look up the unicode combo for an emdash. Two hyphens isn't very elegant.
posted by Caduceus at 11:58 AM on June 22, 2008


I don't know the Unicode number; in HTML you can use —.
posted by enn at 12:05 PM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Use it all day long at work--very useful in forcing several longish but critical elements into a smaller package.

For good use of the semi colon, see Carl Sandburg's Lincoln. The chapter entitled America Whither? opens with a long single-sentence sweep of the American scene at Lincoln's inagaural.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:09 PM on June 22, 2008


;_;
posted by bonaldi at 12:12 PM on June 22, 2008


Thanks enn; that's good to know.
posted by Caduceus at 12:24 PM on June 22, 2008


;?

.
posted by never used baby shoes at 12:31 PM on June 22, 2008


I'm a user (and occasionally abuser) of the ;, it's my favorite punctuation mark. "Infinite Jest" is also my favorite novel, which should give you some insight about my personal preferences in author's writing styles.

Also, Caduceus's last sentence.
posted by dolface at 12:41 PM on June 22, 2008


Could someone please explain when it is proper to use a semicolon, but improper to use a dash?

You can replace most semicolons with dashes, but not vice versa. You can use a dash where it would be ungrammatical to use a semicolon--like here. You require independent clauses (subject + verb) on either side of a semicolon; a dash does not require that independence. So in that sense a semicolon is more formal. A tie may be replaced with a jacket and tie, but a jacket and tie may not as easily be replaced with just a tie.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:03 PM on June 22, 2008


if (dying('\x3B')) { eat(hat); exit(1); }
posted by erniepan at 1:11 PM on June 22, 2008


Journalist Jimmy Breslin once famously praised the Son of Sam for correctly using a semicolon in one of his crazy notes; strangely, the example he cited was not grammatically correct.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 1:14 PM on June 22, 2008


You can have my semicolons when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.
posted by neuron at 1:17 PM on June 22, 2008


Use 'em all the time, but I don't like it that they have no influence on speech or reading aloud.

If you read a passage heavily laden with semicolons, an ideal transcriber wouldn't know where to put them in.

This puts them into the category of diseases of language caused by writing, in my opinion.
posted by jamjam at 1:38 PM on June 22, 2008


I'm a user (and occasionally abuser) of the ;, it's my favorite punctuation mark.

What you did there wth the comma? Don't do that.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:41 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Don't do that.

You could pretend it was ironic.
posted by artifarce at 2:02 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


And I'm going to use the antipathy link in my defense next time someone argues I'm enamored with the sound of my own voice.
posted by artifarce at 2:06 PM on June 22, 2008


tl;dr
posted by pracowity at 2:07 PM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


This puts them into the category of diseases of language caused by writing, in my opinion.

Actually, from the article, it seems to be a vestige of a time when literacy was not wide spread and books primarily existed as a means to record works intended to be read aloud. A written text included stops of various lengths to guide someone reading the text aloud, as opposed to someone just reading silently to themselves, as most people interact with books now. What does a 'stop' or a pause mean to an accomplished reader?

So what seems to be the culprit here is that punctuation has become primarily syntactic as opposed to a mark to aid a speaker. Question marks mark interrogatives, commas string together lists, parenthesis mark asides, periods close off complete sentences. In this context, semi-colons are left with no clear purpose and so are rarely used. What they do seem to accomplish, though, is to cause a fast reader to stumble. Simple sentences can be grasped whole; a series of independent thoughts strung together by semicolons seems to require more attention to unravel.
posted by empath at 2:24 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another situation where the semicolon is unambiguously required is in lists where the individual elements contain commas. As in "At the party were Alice, a young woman; Bob, her father; and Carol, her friend."

I look forward to Slate's premature obituaries of the ellipsis and en-dash.
posted by adamrice at 2:25 PM on June 22, 2008


;
posted by brundlefly at 2:28 PM on June 22, 2008


I look forward to Slate's premature obituaries of the ellipsis and en-dash.

The fifth Harry Potter book will keep ellipses alive for at least another century.
posted by Caduceus at 2:38 PM on June 22, 2008


ODD to be so dismissive of Zinsser. He has a number of best selling books out; (ah)has taught writing at elite colleges; is highly regarded for his work on non-fiction prose writing in all fields.
If you are so unfamiliar with a writer so well known for so many years by so many intelligent writers and readers, then you ought not use foul language to show your "superiority."
posted by Postroad at 2:41 PM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Don't use semicolons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college."

~Kurt Vonnegut.

.
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 3:26 PM on June 22, 2008


em dashes are used for parenthetical phrases.

Which is why you should use, you know, parenthesis instead. Em dashes are an affectation.
posted by Justinian at 4:15 PM on June 22, 2008


All punctuation is an affectation.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:28 PM on June 22, 2008


Ok, em dashes are EMO.
posted by Justinian at 4:32 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


My brother uses a lot of semicolons; his writing sometimes reads exactly the way I imagine that French foreign exchange student's does, as though he learned English from a stack of 19th-century textbooks.

My own writing, on the other hand, is recovering from a long and storied affair with the em-dash.
posted by limeonaire at 4:36 PM on June 22, 2008


the en-dash deserves more than to labor under its larger and more obtuse cousin. also, why should we care what phil collins thinks about punctuation? his music sucked and he makes up dumb words like susudio and i'll be glad when he's;
posted by gorgor_balabala at 5:20 PM on June 22, 2008


(but on a more pointed point, why do americans hate the semicolon? could it be....that they completely lack subtelty and nuance as a culture? do you suppose that could be the fucking answer?)
posted by gorgor_balabala at 5:32 PM on June 22, 2008


subtlety
posted by gorgor_balabala at 5:32 PM on June 22, 2008


ODD to be so dismissive of Zinsser. He has a number of best selling books out; (ah)has taught writing at elite colleges; is highly regarded for his work on non-fiction prose writing in all fields.

How shocking! How dare someone be dismissive of a personage who writes best-selling books and is highly regarded!

You know what? Fuck Strunk & White too.
posted by languagehat at 5:41 PM on June 22, 2008 [12 favorites]


The forced use of semicolons in that article was worth the read.
posted by caddis at 6:05 PM on June 22, 2008


could it be....that they completely lack subtelty and nuance as a culture? do you suppose that could be the fucking answer?

Now that's what I call subtel and nuanced.
posted by adamrice at 6:14 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


ODD to be so dismissive of Zinsser. He has a number of best selling books out; (ah)has taught writing at elite colleges; is highly regarded for his work on non-fiction prose writing in all fields.
If you are so unfamiliar with a writer so well known for so many years by so many intelligent writers and readers, then you ought not use foul language to show your "superiority."
posted by Postroad
Then may I suggest that you not misuse the semicolon in your poorly written passage, as you attempt to prove your superiority. The semicolon will outlive us all; I include Zinsser in that number.

You know what? Fuck Strunk & White too.
posted by languagehat at 5:41 PM
A-fucking-men.
posted by beelzbubba at 6:28 PM on June 22, 2008


I don't know how you can write a couple hundred of words without using a semicolon.

Punctuation does not serve simply as ornamentation; it alerts the reader to a hierarchy of thought.

For example, and sorry to be so pedantic here, but the first clause in the previous sentence could stand on its own as a sentence, as could the second, but the semicolon indicates to the reader that a subsequent clause is going to provide further proof of (or embellishment upon) the first clause.
posted by kozad at 6:31 PM on June 22, 2008 [3 favorites]


That might be the only thing Vonnegut ever wrote that I wholly disagree with.
posted by penduluum at 7:22 PM on June 22, 2008


I love me a semicolon, personally.

When I get back manuscripts from copy editors, they very rarely have removed any of my semicolons, although they usually insist in putting in the fucking serial comma, which I then have to expunge. That's the real battlefront of the punctuation wars, if you ask me.
posted by jscalzi at 7:24 PM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


Good god. Every time I read a sentence without a serial comma where there should be one I die a little inside. I've never seen a sentence which was made less clear by a serial comma. Not to say every list of items requires a serial comma, but many do.

Which is why you should use, you know, parenthesis instead. Em dashes are an affectation.

Cause god damn, I do love me some nested parentheses. Em dashes are a useful piece of punctuation.
posted by Caduceus at 7:51 PM on June 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


I like Zinsser, but he got that one wrong. A semicolon is different from a hyphen (em dash?, how effete).
posted by caddis at 7:54 PM on June 22, 2008


See also: Erin McKean's Semicolon Appreciation Society.

The semicolon is not used enough; the comma is used too often.

As for myself, I have been in love with the semicolon ever since someone actually bothered to teach me its use; this was revelatory. As someone who included far too many nested clauses in my writing, suddenly finding myself with better options for how to nest things was amazing.

I have never taken to the em-dash, however, and lists that fail to include the serial comma strike me as hollow and empty, like a building when it's just a structure, before the walls are put up: it'll stand, sure, but why would you want to leave it like that?
posted by Arturus at 9:18 PM on June 22, 2008


although they usually insist in putting in the fucking serial comma

I had to look this up to discover you were talking about the Oxford comma. I particularly liked this bit on wikipedia:
The differences of opinion on the use of the serial comma are well characterized by Lynne Truss in her popularized style guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves: "There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don't, and I'll just say this, never get between these people when drink has been taken."
posted by Sparx at 3:18 AM on June 23, 2008


"Trevor Butterworth finds an..."

His mom is delicious.

"What? The semicolon is alive and well; anyone who says otherwise is a lying *."

FTFY.

"in HTML you can use —"

Which itself includes a semicolon. The circle is complete.
posted by Eideteker at 8:29 AM on June 23, 2008


Just this year, I found out that the term 'emdash' was to designate that it was the same physical width on the page as the letter 'm', and that the shorter symbol that I had always just called a 'dash' was actually an endash.

I had no idea.

I still won't use them to replace a semicolon though. That just feels icky.
posted by quin at 1:15 PM on June 23, 2008


Vonnegut said don't use semicolons, but he used them. Not often, but his style obviously didn't call for 'em.
posted by kozad at 3:05 PM on June 23, 2008


What's the difference between an em dash and a semicolon? An em dash could forseeably be used— in a technically correct but stylisitically incorrect manner— in the place of virtually any other punctuation mark. It indicates a thought that interrupts another thought, and, should the previous thought resume, it indicates an end the interruption. The semicolon, on the other hand, is used to delimit lists of elements that contain commas themselves; to join gracefully complete thoughts, of which the relationship is so obvious that clearly indicating it would insult the reader; and, as another poster pointed out, to stack thoughts together like Jenga blocks.

The semicolon is easy to abuse in bureaucratic writing but nobody who writes with clarity and poise both can dispose of it easily.
posted by Electrius at 4:08 PM on June 23, 2008


Fuck Strunk & White

Attorneys at Law
posted by spiderwire at 8:30 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


The em dash is lazy. The semicolon is elegant.

And yes, I am an academic, thank yew very much.
posted by jrochest at 8:34 PM on June 23, 2008


The em dash is playful; the semicolon is elegant.

And yes—I am an academic, thank you very much.
posted by spiderwire at 8:39 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I had an English professor once who proclaimed that semicolons were dead, and the em-dash should be used instead in all instances. (I believe this was on the advice of William Zinsser.) I proceeded to use the semicolon out of spite, and still do.

It's been my experience that English instructors sometime have poor comprehension of what they read. I have my copy of On Writing Well beside me. Zinsser doesn't say not to avoid it altogether, but to use it with discretion:
There is a 19th-century mustiness that hangs over the semicolon. We associate it with the carefully balanced sentences, the judicious weighing on "on the one hand" and "on the other hand," of Conrad and Thackeray and Hardy. therefore it should be used sparingly by modern writers of nonfiction. Yet I notice that it turns up quite often in the passages I've quoted in this book and that I use it fairly often myself--usually to add a related thought to the first half of a sentence. Still, the semicolon brings the reader, if not to a halt, at least to a pause. So use it with discretion, remembering that it will slow to a Victorian pace the late-20th-century momentum you're striving for, and rely instead on the period and the dash.
Copy editor Nicole Stockdale had a couple of posts about the dash superseding the semicolon in her blog, A Capital Idea. the em dash lends itself to abuse; one of her commenters refers to the proliferation of em dashes as "dash vomit". I've encountered many writers who won't use a period or a comma, let alone a colon or semicolon, when they can put in a dash instead. It's mistaken for dynamic writing in the same way that slamming every sentence home with a exclamation point is mistaken for such. These aren't the hallmarks of an active, exciting prose stylist; these are the symptoms of a scribbler who needs a Ritalin prescription.
posted by heffalump at 8:55 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Ugh. Please ignore the double negative in my third sentence. Or don't, actually; Zinsser doesn't say to avoid the semicolon, but he doesn't say not to avoid it either.
posted by heffalump at 9:01 PM on June 24, 2008


An em dash could forseeably be used— in a technically correct but stylisitically incorrect manner— in the place of virtually any other punctuation mark.

Yes, but that there was not stylistically—not stylisitically—correct.

[Lightning crashes] Figures—with my luck, the last thing I would type on my computer before lightning struck it would be correcting a grammatical error.
posted by limeonaire at 6:18 PM on July 2, 2008


Crap—nor.
posted by limeonaire at 6:19 PM on July 2, 2008


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