Another in a series looking at some of the more technical sides to communication. And at least it was written (albeit not posted) on a Monday morning…
What news of the lowly semicolon? Of all forms of punctuation, perhaps none is more ignored, and perhaps maligned, than the semicolon. I would venture to say that more people have used the semicolon for a winking emoticon than have placed it between two independent clauses, thereby creating one cohesive sentence. I fear that without the creation and propagation of emoticons, the semicolon would be close to being relegated to the scrapheap of grammar niceties, used only by sixth grade teachers and writers attempting to show how smart they are (present company excluded, of course).
But consider for a moment the elegant and simple nature of the semicolon. It alone among our punctuation marks can be a true unifier, not a divider. [It is not a joiner, either, like those wishy-washy coordinating conjunctions.] The semicolon doesn’t interrupt or draw attention to itself like the self-important dash or the flashy exlamation mark (!). And it certainly isn’t the workhorse period, the clueless question mark, or the misused, misplaced and so often misunderstood comma. Nor does it raise our expectations, often unnecessarily, like its cousin the colon. And don’t get me started on the apostrophe (and for the love of Mike, will you people study the difference between plurals and plural possessives and the use of the apostrophe in only one of those situations). Yes, I know that the apostrophe, along with quotation marks, are quasi-punctuation, but humor me here.
Anyhoo, I digress. Perhaps the status of the semicolon is a reflection of the lack of attention paid to trying to make everyday writing better and, heaven forbid, more interesting. Obviously, using a semicolon doesn’t magically transform the mundane into the magnificent. But it could be a good start. For better or worse, most of us tend to write (and think?) in a relatively simple, direct and linear fashion. A semicolon can be a way to connect some of those thoughts and ideas in such a way as to denote an air (a flair?) of sophistication. It shows the reader that you have a broad, expansive view of the world and that you’re confident in your use of potentially obscure grammatical flourishes.
A caveat: overuse of the semicolon can be a red flag that you’re trying too hard. They should be sprinkled into your writing like a well-aged Parmesan over some homemade gnocchi (cream-based or tomato sauce, your pick). Semicolons should not be doused onto your writing less it lose its flavor or become too thick for efficient or enjoyable reading. Have an insatiable appetite for more on semicolons? Try here and here.
So, next time you’re writing more than a text message to your friends, don’t forget that the semicolon is in your punctuational quiver.
Try it; you just might like it.