The Birth of the Semicolon
August 3, 2019 2:03 PM   Subscribe

The Birth of the Semicolon
The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks.
The humanists put a premium on eloquence and excellence in writing, and they called for the study and retranscription of Greek and Roman classical texts as a way to effect a “cultural rebirth” after the gloomy Middle Ages. In the service of these two goals, humanists published new writing and revised, repunctuated, and reprinted classical texts.

One of these humanists, Aldus Manutius, was the matchmaker who paired up comma and colon to create the semicolon. Manutius was a printer and publisher, and the first literary Latin text he issued was De Aetna, by his contemporary Pietro Bembo. De Aetna was an essay, written in dialogue form, about climbing volcanic Mount Etna in Italy. On its pages lay a new hybrid mark, specially cut for this text by the Bolognese type designer Francesco Griffo: the semicolon (and Griffo dreamed up a nice plump version) is sprinkled here and there throughout the text, conspiring with colons, commas, and parentheses to aid readers.
posted by kirkaracha (52 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love semicolons; but so many people use them incorrectly.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:17 PM on August 3, 2019 [26 favorites]


I love the connective tissue that is the semicolon. I don't use it a lot, but when I do, I really like doing it. It's odd to feel that way about a punctuation mark, but I do.
posted by hippybear at 2:17 PM on August 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


Not to confused with the Greek Question Mark ερωτηματικό, the source of much programming hilarity; how did they become the same glyph? Wikipedia says it dates to around the 8th century AD.
posted by Nelson at 2:23 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I love but so many semicolons; people use them incorrectly.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:25 PM on August 3, 2019 [10 favorites]


I hate semi colons, I only ever use comma splices.
posted by Rob Rockets at 2:37 PM on August 3, 2019 [12 favorites]


I am a semicolon overuser. I don't regret it, but sometimes I go back and edit them into pairs of standalone sentences so that I don't distract other people.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 2:45 PM on August 3, 2019 [16 favorites]


printf("I eventually got rather tired of them for some reason.\n");

(The joke explained for non-programmers: semicolons somehow got chosen to mark the end of a statement in many programming languages from the C family. They're easy to miss, can cause hard-to-understand errors if you leave them off or add them in the wrong place, and in principle they oughtn't be necessary for a well-designed programming language.
posted by traveler_ at 2:45 PM on August 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm not a database admin, but a database is integral to the product I support so I've got some rudimentary knowledge of SQL queries and commands. The application can use either an Oracle or a MS SQL Server platform, and I only have to deal with SQL code now and then; so between a limited amount of practice and my lack of proficiency I often add semicolons to SQL Server code, which doesn't require them to end a statement, and forget them in Oracle code, which does. (And I won't even get into the other syntax differences between the two platforms that I'm constantly getting mixed up. *sigh*)

Apart from coding, however, I enjoy using semicolons - usually appropriately, I think...
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:58 PM on August 3, 2019


The other programming joke I was referencing; going into your friend victim's code and replacing a few ; with ; and watch them lose their minds trying to find where the bizarre error is coming from. At least one language has now added a special error message just for this nastiness.
posted by Nelson at 3:00 PM on August 3, 2019 [8 favorites]


I love people but incorrectly; so many use them semicolons.
posted by kyrademon at 3:03 PM on August 3, 2019 [18 favorites]


I wonder about that date: 1494. Might the semicolon have been brought back from the New World on the Niña or the Pinta, like syphilis (allegedly) - an early part of the Columbian exchange? I imagine Columbus himself stumbling upon these marks growing wild on the shores of Hispaniola, where the locals, since time immemorial, had used them to naturally punctuate their legends & lore, and, with typical thoughtlessnes, greedily gathered up fistfuls of them to take back to Europe...
posted by misteraitch at 3:26 PM on August 3, 2019 [23 favorites]


I have said that I can tell that people will be my good friends based on their use of semicolons in casual contexts (emails, texts, tweets); ain’t been wrong yet!
posted by ferret branca at 3:43 PM on August 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


> semicolons somehow got chosen to mark the end of a statement in many programming languages from the C family...

I've wondered about that too and assumed it was because it was one of the few symbols on common keyboards that had more or less no meaning in mathematics so it would be safe to use as a token to indicate a statement was complete and the next one was coming; in other words, it was the pause for refreshes.
posted by ardgedee at 3:52 PM on August 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


I have no mouth and I must wink;
posted by aws17576 at 4:34 PM on August 3, 2019 [12 favorites]


I admit to purposely using comma splices just to get my private school english teacher to come unhinged and lecture to us about it for the rest of the period. Nothing enraged her more and I came to appreciate how passionately she could orate on the subject.

Sadly, I have forgotten how to make or avoid one.

I feel like semicolons are ostentatious. I occasionally rewrite so that I don't use them, especially in texts. It just feels like sticking your pinky in the air or saying bruschetta correctly.
posted by amanda at 4:40 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


Semicolons use so many people incorrectly; but I love them.
posted by cgc373 at 4:41 PM on August 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Just to note that this is an excerpt from Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, by Cecelia Watson.

I went to college with Cecelia at St. John's Annapolis. She is awesome. Buy her book!
posted by hydropsyche at 4:42 PM on August 3, 2019 [10 favorites]


I've come to the conclusion that people often don't process what you've written until they come to a period; for this reason, the semicolon can sometimes lead to buffer overflows in the brain. The result is that they feel smarter for having read something with a semicolon in it, but don't actually remember what you wrote.
posted by clawsoon at 4:43 PM on August 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


I use semicolons all the time.

But I kind of hate punctuation in general — because it is too powerful, and has reacted back against and usurped the place of intonation, pace, rhythm and a bunch of other things I don't know how to name in spoken language.

In effect, I think we have put spoken language in an iron cage of linked together punctuation.

A surprisingly high proportion of the best talkers I've met could barely write, and some of them were outright illiterate. And I would say I've seen the vitality of some children's language decline when they learned to read, and perhaps more so the better readers they became.
posted by jamjam at 4:44 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I love semi-colons so much that my most favorite necklace is a typewriter key of a semi-colon.
posted by suelac at 4:47 PM on August 3, 2019 [8 favorites]


But I love so many semicolons incorrectly; people use them.
posted by biogeo at 4:54 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


I have a tendency to overuse semicolons in my first-draft writing. I think it's because they capture the sort of rapid flow from one idea to another that I can be prone to in my speech and thinking, and so it feels very natural to use a semicolon as a sort of half-pause instead of a period as a full-stop. Often when I stop and reread what I've just written, I end up going back and replacing a few semicolons with periods, and the readability instantly increases. However, there are definitely times when the semicolon does a better job of communicating the flow of ideas than two sentences separated by a period would, and in those cases I feel much the way hippybear described. It's similar to finding just exactly the right word for a concept.
posted by biogeo at 5:03 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


for ( ; ; )
printf("semicolons 4 lyfe");

posted by Mayor West at 5:20 PM on August 3, 2019


When my copy starts filling up with dashes and lacks variety—then I turn to the semicolon.
posted by notyou at 5:20 PM on August 3, 2019


I hate semi colons, I only ever use comma splices.

I recently had to proof a novella-length technical text from a guy who was not as good with English as he thought -- he had a gift for what might superficially resembled called comma splices -- the thing is they were separate sentences joined by dashes -- whether these ideas fit together or not they were joined by the hyphen and no other punctuation -- it was murder to read.

I see I buried the lede; I will start again.

I recently had to proof a novella-length sentence.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:21 PM on August 3, 2019 [18 favorites]


You proofread for David Foster Wallace?
posted by acb at 5:23 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


Semicolons are A Thing for my wife and me. She just presented me with a copy of Cecilia Watson’s book, so this post is timely!
posted by emelenjr at 5:31 PM on August 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


I believe the usual critique is: "All they do is show you've been to college."

I quite like them if used sparingly.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:16 PM on August 3, 2019


I thought the usual critique was that they look someone swatted a fruit fly just above a comma. And somewhere recently — I wanna say in some SMBC mouseover text — I read something to the effect that, “One good way to use a semicolon is not to.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:43 PM on August 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


I finally read a Jane Austen book and she sure used a semicolon; "She put them in quotes;" (She put them in parenthesis too;) I love it.

I love semi-colons but commas are cancer, and I say this as an Oxford comma hard-liner.
posted by fleacircus at 6:48 PM on August 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


I love the semicolon; I use at least one a day.

I have a dim memory of one of the neologism bits Tim Kazurinsky used to do on SNL; he coined the term "colossolostomy" and said it would leave you with a semi-colon.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:14 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


In what little freelance professional writing I have done, I have been criticized by my editors twice for overusing dashes and once for overusing semi-colons. I take a little bit of pride in that.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:31 PM on August 3, 2019


Metafilter; incorrectly.
posted by Pryde at 7:40 PM on August 3, 2019 [10 favorites]


How did this get so far without mentioning The Lonely Island’s Semicolon?
posted by notoriety public at 7:54 PM on August 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Your mother's so pretentious, she has strong opinions about the Oxford Semicolon.
posted by biogeo at 8:07 PM on August 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


I occasionally misuse (i.e., don't use) semicolons in casual text just to prove I'm one of the hoi polloi. E.g., something like "I didn't use the green one, I used the brown one," which should use a semicolon but which comes across as almost fussy in a text message to your sister about the towels in her guest bathroom if you do.

It's funny that perimenopause has really fucked with my ability to spell correctly (I often find myself typing in words in phonetic spelling) and causes me to omit words all the time but hasn't had the slightest impact on my adherence to punctuation rules and guidelines per CMS ~15th ed.
posted by drlith at 8:23 PM on August 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


I appreciate the semicolon when used well, and I use it regularly myself. When I started working as a copy editor at one newspaper, though, my boss told me not to put semicolons in local news stories: "The reporters will think they know how to use them."
posted by bryon at 8:57 PM on August 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


Let it be known far and wide that I'm calling it now: semicolons are destined to become the Comic Sans of the 2020's. You just wait and see.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:39 PM on August 3, 2019


Metafilter; incorrectly.

“Shaka, when the walls fell.”

“MetaFilter, its semicolons contentious.”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:39 PM on August 3, 2019 [8 favorites]


Semicolons are better than megacolons.
posted by sylvanshine at 12:30 AM on August 4, 2019


What about hemidemicolons?
posted by clawsoon at 5:06 AM on August 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


drlith, I do that too. Actually, since I learned how to create an em-dash on all the keyboards I have access to, I've been mostly using that instead of a comma splice for the same purpose.

The novel I'm writing is supposed to be light-hearted urban fantasy and I'm unsure how many semicolons are appropriate for that style of writing. This bothers me. (Any opinions?)
posted by daisyk at 5:41 AM on August 4, 2019


I tried to find an English translation of De Aetna, as I'm interested in mountaineering history. So far I've had no luck, but I did find this LRB review of two books about it, which others may also enjoy.
posted by daisyk at 5:52 AM on August 4, 2019


I love semicolons; still waiting for the interrobang to catch on.
posted by TedW at 6:45 AM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Semicolons are better than megacolons.

Can we leave Trump out of this?
posted by notsnot at 7:05 AM on August 4, 2019


De Aetna was also the first book to use italics, which seems at least as remarkable as the semicolon.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 7:45 AM on August 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


My Freshman Comp teacher in college was obsessed with proper semicolon usage, and marked me down on papers until he thought I had gotten it right. (But then, he had left his fiancee at the altar, and semi-bragged about it to us, so I have mixed feelings about him and his "lessons".)
posted by gudrun at 9:16 AM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


A well used semicolon is a thing of beauty, it is my favourite punctuation. I get genuinely excited when I have the opportunity to use one.

Agree that commas are like moles in a lawn though, they tend to pop up everywhere if you're not careful. I have a long-running disagreement with my mother about when commas are appropriate (her: very sparing, only to separate clauses; me: at every point I'd take a breath when reading).
posted by stillnocturnal at 9:19 AM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


Some people once correctly the semicolon love me; i ain't the sharpest—wait let me come in again

I do love the things, though, probably too much. I'm uninhibited about them in my personal writing; I try not to overdo it, but I also try not to overdo "not overdoing it" because when stripped of longer or more elaborately structured sentences my writing doesn't really feel to me like my writing. I don't want to write needlessly long sentences, but I also don't want to be forever slicing thoughts in half just to keep the run-length short. A semicolon can work well as a stitch-marker in a complex phrase.

When I'm getting up to writing a long MetaTalk, on the other hand, it usually ends up with fewer semicolons than it started with, after other folks on the MeFi team get their eyeballs on my writing and point out where shorter, more to-the-point thoughts will be better. Utility wins (at least by degrees and, hopefully, not too grudgingly) when it's professional writing with a community purpose. But I imagine there may be a backdraft there into my personal comments and writing as a result; that pent up potential energy has to go somewhere.

I have strong and idiosyncratic feelings about em dashes too, but I'm trying to get over them a little.
posted by cortex at 12:06 PM on August 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: pent up potential energy delimited by semicolons
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:43 PM on August 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


I do love the things, though, probably too much. I'm uninhibited about them in my personal writing; I try not to overdo it, but I also try not to overdo "not overdoing it" because when stripped of longer or more elaborately structured sentences my writing doesn't really feel to me like my writing. I don't want to write needlessly long sentences, but I also don't want to be forever slicing thoughts in half just to keep the run-length short.

Exactly right, and I feel the same way about em dashes. It's possible I first fell in love with John Irving due to his deployment of semicolons.
posted by carmicha at 9:14 PM on August 4, 2019


“I’ve got a ’34 wagon; they call it a ‘woodie.’”
posted by kirkaracha at 7:54 AM on August 14, 2019


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