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A Guide to Using Semicolons Properly; Also, Further Links to Semicolon Related Material on the Inside.
January 25, 2010 1:23 PM   Subscribe


 
Thanks for this post; I use semicolons more than most people and certainly didn't know others celebrated its alleged sexiness.

Confession: I often end up using a semicolon because I feel like I'm about to use parentheses or quotation marks wrong but using a semicolon avoids the construction that is going to cause the possible error.

posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:30 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is one of my favorite things posted on Metafilter in 2010; I will recommend it to all my bear-fighting, mayonnaise eating, plague ridden friends.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:32 PM on January 25, 2010


Soon to be followed up by How To Inefectively Choose a Font and How to Draw Like You're in Kindergarten.

Sorry it's Monday
posted by doctor_negative at 1:33 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Plus you are doctor_negative, so it's to be expected right? ;)
posted by Effigy2000 at 1:36 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Okay; I guess.
posted by Faze at 1:36 PM on January 25, 2010


Love semicolons; hate The Oatmeal. It’s Maddox 2.0.
posted by stilist at 1:46 PM on January 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


fair enough. Looks like Mr. Croll was right after all.
posted by philip-random at 1:47 PM on January 25, 2010


tl;dr
posted by localroger at 1:49 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm drowning in semicolons here; I think lawyers believe they are just "fancy commas."
posted by JoanArkham at 1:51 PM on January 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


I use a ton of semi-colons. And em-dashes. Well, not a ton — an appropriate amount. I am aware that this makes my writing look archaic or stilted to some people: people who aren't big readers, usually. I am also of the opinion that it makes it read more tonally, almost like verbal communication, and that it's therefore both more versatile and clearer. It's not like anybody has to ask me what that line I just used is for.

I'm proud to defend and maintain a small foothold in the ongoing war of Laziness vs. Perfectly Good Useful Things.
posted by penduluum at 1:52 PM on January 25, 2010 [16 favorites]


"Don't use it with conjunctions" is probably a useful rule of thumb for people learning grammar, but it's silly to think of it as an iron law of grammar. (See also the notion that it's wrong to start a sentence with a conjunction.) It's often fine to use a semicolon before a conjunction.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 1:52 PM on January 25, 2010


And fuck emoticons. Not that that's a really dangerous position to take.
posted by penduluum at 1:53 PM on January 25, 2010


The Oatmeal is kind of like "email forwards from your relatives, writ large" sometimes; true. But I luuuv how Matthew Inman draws eyes.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 1:53 PM on January 25, 2010


I'm drowning in semicolons here; I think lawyers believe they are just "fancy commas."

Semicolons are billed at a higher rate than commas.
posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 1:54 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like semicolons and use them. I also use emoticons on a daily basis.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:57 PM on January 25, 2010


Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.
--Kurt Vonnegut

But I like them.
posted by ocha-no-mizu at 2:02 PM on January 25, 2010 [10 favorites]


Mayonnaise made me; "The Man" I am today. --Hal Hellman
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:02 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm starting to think the Oatmeal is a little overrated, though their "How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell" comic is perfect.

I'm an avid semicolon user who also uses emoticons on a fairly regular basis; I don't think the latter spells the destruction of the former.
posted by moviehawk at 2:02 PM on January 25, 2010


I second Vonnegut. The only people who should be allowed to use semicolons are those who also agree with the rule that you should never use them.
posted by rusty at 2:09 PM on January 25, 2010


Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

pip; si
posted by vibrotronica at 2:11 PM on January 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


I am reminded of an essay I once wrote. It was titled "Vonnegut Was Wrong: Why Colons Are a Superior Indicator of College Education."
posted by nickmark at 2:13 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sorry it's Monday

Yeah, I'm sorry it's Monday, too.
posted by mrnutty at 2:14 PM on January 25, 2010


I love semicolons, but:
"Don't use it with conjunctions.
Conjunctions are words like and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet."

"While searching for a good place to get a unicorn burger, I traveled to Seattle, Washington; Tokyo, Japan; and London, England."

"My favorite people include Samuel Slaughterjaws, a famous unicorn hunter; my uncle Wilford, a world champion at mayonnaise eating contests; and Nicola Tesla, the most awesome dude to ever fire a lightning bolt at an angry peasant."
posted by PontifexPrimus at 2:15 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


#include semincolon;
posted by Artw at 2:16 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well I guess that would fail to compile...
posted by Artw at 2:16 PM on January 25, 2010


I just calculated that semicolons occur in approximately 1% of my MeFi comments; I suspect that is not normal (regardless of which way you define "that").

Erm... "Still, some people still celebrate the little "sexy" semicolon;  so  perhaps not all hope is lost."
posted by zennie at 2:17 PM on January 25, 2010


Dash it all, I just came in here to see what other people said. Though I loved the article.
posted by Sk4n at 2:19 PM on January 25, 2010


The actual problem is that programmers consume 99% of the world's semicolon production, causing a severe shortage of supply for English majors. Some English majors have tried to make their own by hand-writing a dot above a standard comma, but this tends to anger the punctuation workers' union, who have been known the send the boys around to perform a semi-colonoscopy in retribution.
posted by w0mbat at 2:20 PM on January 25, 2010 [12 favorites]


Semi-colons are great. I understand people who say well if you dont want to start a new sentence, then use a comma, but I say here's a whole extra punctuation opportunity to really intone those subtleties. I love the way they capture something about speech that a comma is too fragrant and a full stop is too brutal to do. And I don't understand the need to do away with punctuation, as though there's too much of it around and we need to make cutbacks. Semi-colons have a tiny carbon footprint. Miniscule.

Anyway, the wind blows; doesn't really matter
posted by criticalbill at 2:21 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like using semi-colons as actual punctuation on Twitter and in SMS messages. It makes me feel like I'm doing it wrong.
posted by quin at 2:24 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some of my favorite authors use semicolons; I realize now that I am wrong.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:26 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you add up all those semicolons in the vast mountains of C, C++, Perl, Javascript, et al. source code out there, I'd say that 'modern life' actually has way more semicolons than any other time in the past by far.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:30 PM on January 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


I detest the idea that somehow punctuation is used mainly to indicate length of pause. It's baby level grammar. And this guide goes with that idea full bore.

No no no! That's not it at all.
posted by Justinian at 2:31 PM on January 25, 2010


Of course lawyers drown in semicolons. One usage that comic didn't point out is that you use semicolons as separators with lists of items where the things being listed are complete sentences.

For instance:

The parties agree to the following: they will eat cheese every Thursday; any honey bears found, unless on a blue moon, will be dipped in chocolate; the parties will dance the conga, but not on any day where they do the fandango; and each party will bear its own costs for the repair of rain gutters damaged during sexual congress.
posted by bswinburn at 2:32 PM on January 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


Semi-awesome!
posted by rudster at 2:39 PM on January 25, 2010


The Oatmeal annoys me because of the SEO bullshit.
posted by sveskemus at 2:40 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can one write anything reasonably technical without the use of a semi-colon?
posted by jkaczor at 2:52 PM on January 25, 2010


My use of semicolon lists was sparked by Edward Tufte.
posted by stilist at 2:54 PM on January 25, 2010


Previously;
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:55 PM on January 25, 2010


I'm going to start using semi-colons for semi-condolences. And then I'm going to put a circle around it and sell the shit out of it; suckers!
posted by june made him a gemini at 2:56 PM on January 25, 2010


I want to know all the proper rules for placement of punctuation within quotes. It seems awkward to add punctuation inside the quotes when it wasn't part of the quote to begin with.
posted by jeblis at 3:10 PM on January 25, 2010


"My aunt's hairy knuckles are magnificent indeed, but I have no desire to stroke them."
A comma is used because there is a
but separating the two clauses.

I've been under the impression all of these years that it's also incorrect to use a comma when there's a conjunction.
posted by chococat at 3:16 PM on January 25, 2010


Here you go, jeblis. ;)
posted by sveskemus at 3:17 PM on January 25, 2010


Every time you use a semi-colon, you're doing a half-assed job.
posted by qvantamon at 3:25 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why punctuation matters to legal types.
posted by showmethecalvino at 3:27 PM on January 25, 2010


I love the fact that semicolons are statement separators in so many programming languages (and I'm also aware that that's one of the most pathetically nerdy sentences I've ever written). It makes code look so literary, and it's almost as though it's part of a narrative.

"For i, let us say, is zero; we shall continue to examine it until it reaches the value of 100; and each time we examine it we shall add one to its total. Now, let us use i as the index to one of our fine arrays; let us multiply the value at that index by i itself; lastly, let us store that value in a second array."
posted by ZsigE at 3:33 PM on January 25, 2010 [11 favorites]


Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that "All [semicolons] do is show that you've been to college." New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was "semicolon boy."

I had no idea the semicolon was such a shibboleth. Damn.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 3:39 PM on January 25, 2010


ZsigE - and them thar fancy curly brackets.
posted by Artw at 3:40 PM on January 25, 2010


Now if only someone would create an informative info-graphical guide about how to properly use a right parenthesis bracket. I could really use one of those.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 3:43 PM on January 25, 2010


I love semi-colons; they're the only thing that gives my phrasing any sort of flow or coherency.

"; so perhaps not all hope is lost. "
I don't like this >;[
posted by rubah at 3:48 PM on January 25, 2010


I understand the use of semicolon in legal documents, however, I'm supposed to be compiling and editing non-legal documents for a general audience.
posted by JoanArkham at 3:50 PM on January 25, 2010


I keep imagining the conversation between two trappist monks...

"God damn it! I spent two hours copying this fucking page, and the damn pen just dripped right in the middle of it. Now there's a weird dot just on top of one of the commas."
"Dude, just leave it there. Nobody will notice. Come on, let's have a beer."
posted by qvantamon at 4:04 PM on January 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.

I love the dude; but this is one of the oft-repeated quotes that makes me hate him, briefly.
posted by Dumsnill at 4:08 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pontiflex Primus - I suppose they would be Oxford semi-colons?
posted by jonnyseveral at 4:19 PM on January 25, 2010


The Semicolon is a Point which is composed of a Comma, and an inverted Full-point; to shew the quantity of the pause or rest which it requires.The Semicolon is a Point of great use to enforce and to illustrate what has been advanced, and digested by the Comma. It serves likewise to concatenate such parts of a period as are to be supported by a Point of more elevation than a Comma, which helps to relate the matter more distinctly ; whereas the Semicolon keeps the parts of an argument together.                 — Philip Luckombe, A Concise History of the Origin and Progress of Printing, 1723
posted by XMLicious at 4:28 PM on January 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am a huge fan of semicolons, and I use them in my writing a lot (but not too much!).
I briefly flirted with the notion of getting a tattoo of a semicolon, but decided that they're too strongly associated with winky emoticons.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 4:34 PM on January 25, 2010


The Oatmeal is kind of like "email forwards from your relatives, writ large"

if only my relatives were to send me something that funny. usually it's red-state fear mongering
posted by Dr. Twist at 5:04 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Someone once compared using a semi-colon to crossing your hands when playing the piano: you'd better know exactly what you're doing or you'll look like a pretentious idiot.

Sadly, I can remember neither the exact quote nor who uttered it.
posted by braax at 5:16 PM on January 25, 2010


If :-- is a dog's bollocks, then what is ;-- ?
posted by webhund at 6:07 PM on January 25, 2010


I use the ; yet I fear the ;.
posted by MikeMc at 6:16 PM on January 25, 2010


I overuse semicolons. I blame my mother, who routinely took me to task in highschool for incorrectly using both em-dashes and colons, leaving me with only semicolons to enable my run-on sentences to run as I would like. Also, I'm a programmer, but I'm pretty sure the semi-colons are a direct result of my insufferable long-windedness, as my code is sparse and elegant like a zen koan. (I wish).
posted by ch1x0r at 7:57 PM on January 25, 2010


I think Oatmeal should do one on nested parentheses (which I use way too much (probably from my days as a LISP programmer)).
posted by neuron at 8:20 PM on January 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


That Vonnegut quote really rubs me the wrong way, and seems quite contrary to his normally compassionate spirit. Every time people pull it out the woodwork, I positively cringe. I hope the apparent homophobia and trans-phobia of that remark is just a thoughtless and insensitive fluke. Assuming it is, I really wish people would stop quoting it. It's not cute or funny or clever, and it's not at all unlike saying "a semi-colon is like a half-black/half-white person who has the gall to think of herself or himself as a member of both races but doesn't have the decency to try to hide it . . ."
posted by treepour at 8:50 PM on January 25, 2010


Agreed about the Vonnegut quote...ugh.
posted by hiteleven at 9:42 PM on January 25, 2010


I don't think Vonnegut intended anything with his statement; he's only wishing to impress how out of place a semi-colon is 90% of the time. It fucks up the flow and takes you out of the story; boy, how I hate being in the middle of reading a story and all of a sudden a weird-o semi-colon comes by and I'm like "Hey look, there goes a semi-colon, is that being used right?" when what I, the reader, should be doing is happily losing myself in the narrative.

So, I think the rule is: if you're going to be using semi-colons; then use them regularly for Chrissakes — but not as frequently as I have here — (I loves me some em dashes, much better than parentheses most of the time). And if you're not going to be using semi-colons regularly, then dispense altogether.

But LaGuardia had it right with the semi-colon boy, remarks (such a brilliant mayor; truly a fascinating man and leader), it is the tool of lawyers and bureaucrats; in other words the punctuating tool of itemization and hairsplitting and legalism and dullness and backstabbing; the tool of tools. Frankly, I wouldn't trust a man who uses semi-colon, too much.
posted by Skygazer at 12:54 AM on January 26, 2010


Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.

--Kurt Vonnegut


Yeah, but transvestite hermaphrodites are hot.
posted by louche mustachio at 3:50 AM on January 26, 2010


Semicolons are for coastal liberal elites. Real Americans use periods.
posted by caddis at 6:46 AM on January 26, 2010


True, I never used a semicolon until I moved to the west coast; but I was only ten at the time.
posted by philip-random at 10:38 AM on January 26, 2010


That Vonnegut quote really rubs me the wrong way, and seems quite contrary to his normally compassionate spirit. Every time people pull it out the woodwork, I positively cringe. I hope the apparent homophobia and trans-phobia of that remark is just a thoughtless and insensitive fluke.

I don't think that quote is homo- or transphobic, it is instead meant to signify the redundancy of the semi-colon as a punctuation mark. How would it be possible to have a transvestite hermaphrodite? Which vestements could be trans of a person of both genders?
posted by jonnyseveral at 10:53 AM on January 26, 2010


namespace MeFi
{
   public class Comment
   {
      public static string Reply(string snark)
      {
         return string.Format("MetaFilter: {0}", snark)
      }
   }
}
Error 8 ; expected C:\code\Comment.cs 7 58 MeFi.Comment
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 12:00 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


INFORMATION; SEASPEAK UTILIZES SEMICOLONS; OVER.
posted by mendel at 9:22 PM on January 27, 2010


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