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A Word, Please: Semicolons can often hinder good writing

An essay published online set off a social-media firestorm last week. The too-hot-to-touch topic wasn’t Syria or impeachment or even Stephen Miller’s new hair. It was about something far more incendiary: semicolons.

The title will tell you everything you need to know: “The semicolon is pointless and it’s ruining your writing,” the headline on the Writing Cooperative website proclaimed. If the author was looking for attention, mission accomplished.

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“Idiotic,” author J. Robert Lennon tweeted.

“Rules about writing from someone who doesn’t understand writing,” a Twitter user named John replied.

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“Time to remake those Worst Take of 2018 lists,” Slate editor Sam Adams tweeted.

The author gave his detractors plenty of fodder. For example, the essay asserts that prescriptivists, people who are sticklers for certain artificial language rules, are usually copy editors. Not true.

Every copy editor I know is informed enough to understand that many of the rules so gleefully enforced by prescriptivists have no basis in fact.

That’s why copy editors are often descriptivists — folks who know that language writes its own rules and that you can’t impose made-up ones on it. Yes, copy editors apply rules to the writing they edit, but those are mainly style rules that apply only in professional publishing.

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They’re not universal. And many of us understand that.

Even more problematic: This whole debate has nothing to do with the subject at hand: semicolons.

The battles over prescriptivism and descriptivism are basically battles over when naturally occurring changes in the language can be considered proper — issues like when it’s OK to dispense with “whom.” It’s about the natural evolution of words and syntax.

Punctuation isn’t a naturally evolving language phenomenon because it’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon in language.

On the contrary, punctuation is unnatural: a set of external, artificial rules assembled relatively recently by printers who saw that little marks could make words on a page easier to follow.

Language is natural. Punctuation is artificial. So there’s nothing there for prescriptivists and descriptivists to disagree about.

Yet despite these and other problems with the essay, I happen to agree with its main point: semicolons are bad news. But before I tell you why I hate them, a quick primer on how they work.

Semicolons have two jobs: They join closely related clauses that could stand alone as sentences, and they work as a sort of uber comma to separate items too unwieldy to make sense with commas alone.

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Here’s an example of that first usage: I like pizza; I also like pasta.

Here’s an example of that second usage: We visited Denver, Colorado; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; and Galveston, Texas.

In the first example, as you may have noticed, the semicolon is unnecessary. You could as easily make that sentence into two separate sentences or maybe join them with a conjunction like “and.”

Perhaps you also noticed that, in the second example, the semicolons are pretty useful. Without them, all the words listed would be organized as separate items. Galveston wouldn’t be a town in Texas. It would be a list item on par with Texas.

Clearly, sometimes, semicolons are indispensable. But about 99% of the time I see writers use them, they do so not to the benefit of the reader. They do so at the expense of the reader.

Short sentences are usually more reader-friendly. So the only reason to use a semicolon to turn two shorter sentences into one longer one is to flaunt your knowledge of semicolons.

In other words, you subordinated the reader’s need for clear writing just to show off.

As for those long lists, in many cases, these semicolons are a clear sign you’re cramming too much information into the sentence.

Yes, sometimes that’s your only option, as in my example above. But 99 times out of 100, if you’ve written a sentence so unwieldy it needs semicolons to make sense, you should probably just break up the sentence.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.”

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