Monday, December 15, 2014

In defense of the semicolon

Again with Facebook.

Someone posted on the Chattanooga Writers Guild that semicolons are "ugly," and "unnecessary," and not used right.  I would say no, no, and yes.

How can a punctuation mark be ugly?  Eye of the beholder.

They are necessary in academic prose. As a code switcher I use them a lot, but they don't really belong in poetry, plays, or novels.  They indicate a deeper level of connection and analysis that you wouldn't see or need in oral communication.

And yes, most people do weird things with them, putting them where commas should go for no reason whatsoever.  As I tell my students, semicolons have two purposes:

1. to connect two independent clauses into one sentence because they are logically connected.  In this case, a conjunctive adverb (transition word) should be used.
2. to separate items in a list when the items have commas in them.  This usage is for clarity.

Beyond that, avoid them.  I overuse them, I admit, which is why my writing group gets after me for overlong, Faulknerian sentences that are too academic.  Code switching is hard.

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