The Sissy Semicolon

James J. Kilpatrick

5/16/2006 12:50:54 PM - James J. Kilpatrick

It is not easy to write with dispassion of the odious semicolon, but let me try: Except for its function in one copy-editing circumstance, the semicolon is worthless. It is the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented. Sensitive editors should abolish it forthwith. Forthwith!

These kindly observations are provoked by the publication this month of "A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman. In accordance with the usual rules of book reviewing, I have never read the work, but I have read an except from it in last month's Writer's Digest. That suffices.

Let us be fair, but not too fair. Mr. Lukeman begins his disquisition:

"The primary function of the semicolon is to connect two complete (thematically similar) sentences, thereby making them one." (Here he begins to waffle.) "But when and how to do that is open to interpretation. The semicolon has often been overused ... and questionably used throughout its existence and has been the subject of endless debate." (Will this gentleman ever begin to defend his indefensible point?)

"Compounding the debate is the fact that grammatically, the semicolon is never necessary; two short sentences can always coexist without being connected." (If it is not necessary to use a semicolon, surely it is necessary not to use it. I will not interrupt again.)

"Artistically, though, the semicolon opens a world of possibilities and can lend a huge impact. In this sense, it's the punctuation mark best suited for creative writers.

"The semicolon is probably the most elegant of all forms of punctuation."

Had enough? What hokum! What bosh, what baloney, what bilge! The semicolon is a belly-up guppie in a tank of glorious Siamese fighting fish. It's girly. It is not just probably the most useless of all forms of punctuation. It is absolutely, positively the most useless of all such marks ever invented. Its sole legitimate function is to separate individual elements in a listing of linked elements, e.g., "Lincoln's principal rivals were Salmon Chase, governor of Ohio; William Henry Seward, a senator from New York; and Edward Bates, a distinguished elder statesman from Illinois."

Why is the semicolon so obnoxious? For one thing, it serves no useful purpose not already abundantly served by the period and the colon. For another, this pathetic hybrid is so shy, so bashful, so gutless, so easily overlooked, that a reader runs right over it. We stumble. We backtrack. What happened to the sentence that was there a minute ago? Now you see the semi, now you don't.

Mr. Lukeman defends his position by citing Horrid Examples. Not a single one of them is convincing, let alone persuasive. He posits this sequence: "He ran with his shirt over his head. He had forgotten his umbrella once again." The passage would be vastly improved, he suggests, by replacing the period with a semicolon. The emendation "lends an appropriate feeling of connection."

With appropriate deference, pooh! With or without the surreptitious semi, you wind up all choppy. Any good editor could suggest half a dozen things to do with those two sentences, such as shooting them. One could try, "Having stupidly left his umbrella in the trollop's boudoir, he pulled his shirt over his head and fled." The sentence still needs some polishing, but c'mon! At least you don't have to back up and read it twice.