Getting the skinny on the semicolon

The semicolon can inspire strong emotions. Kurt Vonnegut said “All they do is show you’ve been to college,” and George Orwell detested them.


The Oxford comma provokes spirited debate, and many people are passionately pro this piece of punctuation (as we discussed a few weeks ago). The semicolon is another mark that inspires strong emotions, but in this case reactions generally lean toward hatred or confusion. Kurt Vonnegut – “All they do is show you’ve been to college” – and George Orwell detested them. Historian and philosopher Cecelia Watson, though, loves semicolons so much that she has written a wonderful book about them, “Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.”

Semicolons, like most punctuation marks, were first used as a way to indicate pauses when reading aloud, like rests in music. A comma denoted the shortest pause, followed by the semicolon, colon, and period. This was one of the first things Mary Johnson explained in her popular guide to what all young women should know, “Every Young Woman’s Companion” (1770), even before she broached key issues like “Instructions for making of strong Gravies” and “preventing Servants from being easily imposed on by Tradesmen”: “At a Comma, rest only whilst you can say privately to yourself one; at a Semicolon, pause whilst you can say one, two, deliberately.”

By the early 1800s, semicolons had become part of written syntax, marking clauses, not pauses. These clauses could then be analyzed by grammarians, who capitalized on the 19th-century mania for the natural sciences to position themselves as scientists too. Mathematics and chemistry had lots of complicated symbols; grammarians created the fiendishly difficult sentence diagram. 

The process of induction – formulating general rules or hypotheses from particular observations – was thought to be central to grammar as well as to physics and biology. According to Dr. Watson, grammarians even proposed that their science was the most important. 

Before semicolons got the scientific treatment, writers used them with abandon. But as rules multiplied and it became more difficult to employ them “correctly,” writers began to avoid them. There has been a steady decline from “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), which contains a semicolon every three sentences, to “Twilight” (2005), with one every 55. Today, even such a masterly stylist as A.S. Byatt admits, “I feel I don’t understand them. ... I’ve always been baffled ... by anybody who had a very strong idea about when to put them in.”

Dr. Watson advises writers not to worry overmuch about “correctness.” For anyone who still empathizes with Ms. Byatt, though, stay tuned for next week, when we’ll look at some of the rules that have made the semicolon so confusing to so many people.

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