I have a love/hate relationship with the semicolon. To be specific, the semicolon with which I am in this relationship I not the semicolon that acts as a boss-comma. The boss-comma semicolon performs admirably the function of making clear lists of phrases that embrace internal commas. I’m fine with this usage. This semicolon is invisible to me – as all good uses of punctuation should be.
No. My turbulent relationship is with the semicolon used to join clauses. Used correctly, it joins independent clauses. Used often to join up any damned fragments the writer wants to mash together.
I’ve recently joined a critique group. This week the pieces submitted were so this with semicolons, I thought I was reading a Java class.
Side note: Has anyone ever tried writing a narrative within the strictures of a programming language? Would it be fascinating or dull to read?
Obtrusive and irritating are the nicest things I can find to say about the parade of semicolons in these pieces. The nib of my red pen was worn to a nub. My attitude to those who use semicolons can be summed up in the following diagram:
- Use too many semicolons – you look pretentious
- Use them incorrectly – you look like an idiot
- Use semicolons incorrectly all over your writing – you look like a pretentious idiot
While the boundaries of correct usage are solid, the boundaries of what constitutes too many semicolons are blurry. It depends entirely on how good a writer you are and whether these usages are not only correct, but appropriate.
That’s the hate out of the way. As for the love… When I see a writer use a semicolon for its intended purpose, in a sentence that it perfectly fits and enhances, it makes me happy. It gives me a level of craft to aspire to (because I’m definitely not yet in the class of confident and stylish semicolon users).
Until then, this is the advice I follow and I urge folks to do the same:
Use them correctly; use them sparingly; use them elegantly.