No! No! Say it ain’t so! Is the life of the semicolon coming to a full stop? ;*(


Everyone today seems to be talking about the appointment of Philip Levine as the next U.S. Poet Laureate (you can read about that here), but I have more important things on my mind.

According to an article in The Australian:

For centuries, the semicolon has carved out a tenuous – but precious – place for itself between the comma and the colon.Without the humble semicolon, some of the greatest achievements of English prose – the looping, qualified sentences of Henry James; the elaborate, ironic juxtapositions of Evelyn Waugh – would not have been possible. It has endured; it has persisted; it has even thrived.

But now – under the various pressures of texting, email, journalese, “plain English” and PowerPoint – the career of the semicolon appears rapidly to be approaching a full-stop.

The rare, and usually middle-aged, journalists [Ahem! – ED.] who still revere the semicolon will discover it is no favourite of sub-editors, who will nowadays allow the comma to do much of the semi’s previous work of co-ordinating ideas inside a sentence. And as sentences get shorter, there is less of that work to do.

Is THIS what you want? Huh? huh? huh?

In short (literally), texting, email, tweets – all have given rise to the impatient, minimalist sentence.  The semicolon, it appears, has become an endangered species.

Even technical and legal documents – the bread-and-butter of semicolons everywhere – are dumping their hardworking employees: the middle-aged semicolon is giving way to younger, fancy bulleted points that think they are hot stuff.

Still, the humble punctuation mark has its champions:  Author David Malouf argues for its continued employment:  “If you want longer sentences and still allow readers to find their way through, then the semicolon is very good,” he says.  “I tend to write longer sentences and use the semicolon so as not to have to break the longer sentences into shorter ones that would suggest things are not connected that I want people to see as connected.

“Short sentences make for fast reading; often you want slow reading.”  Like wanting slow food, cooked for hours, over something quick you can grab at a fast food joint.  Like “dining” versus “having something to eat.”

In a vulgar age, however, good things must be put to vulgar uses, and Pavlova‘s pirouettes must make way for pole dancing:

If this most subtle of punctuation marks is to survive, it may well be inside one of the most vulgar: the emoticon.

To which the only fitting response must be: ;*(

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4 Responses to “No! No! Say it ain’t so! Is the life of the semicolon coming to a full stop? ;*(”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    From “Notes on Punctuation”, by Lewis Thomas (

    “I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.

    “The things I like best in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, especially in the Four Quartets, are the semicolons. You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.

    Commas can’t do this sort of thing; they can only tell you how the different parts of a complicated thought are to be fitted together, but you can’t sit, not even to take a breath, just because of a comma, “

  2. Sarang Says:

    For what it’s worth I would guess that word limits make people — if anything — tend to use more semicolons: a semicolon saves you a relative pronoun or a transitional “therefore.”

  3. Marianne Bacon Says:

    I will always be the kind of person who wants to sit and take a breath. What excellent comments from John Lawler.

  4. John Lawler Says:

    Not mine, I hasten to say, just part of an essay by Lewis Thomas that I’ve admired for decades. So much so that I typed it out and put it on the web decades ago. All part of the job, Ma’am.