A Word, Please: Semicolons have two specific purposes, so don't overuse

I've gone soft on semicolons. For years, my position on these strange little squiggles has been as follows: I hate them.

I have good reason.

Semicolons don't come up much in my editing work. Most writers don't bother with them. Perhaps they understand how useful semicolons are not. Or maybe they're unsure how to use them and figure, "Hey, I've gotten this far without using semicolons. Why learn now?"

But the writers who do use semicolons — well, they're the reason I hate semicolons. Here's an excerpt from an article I edited in which the writer quotes a therapist at a spa. "'Now shower; and your skin will feel like new,' she said."

In that sentence, you could replace the semicolon with a period and start a new sentence. Or you could use a comma. Or you could use nothing. That raises the question: Why did the writer use the semicolon?

There's only one possible reason: because she could. This quotation did not need a semicolon. It merely presented the opportunity to use one — an opportunity certain writers are all too keen to seize upon. So in this sentence, the semicolon serves only to show off that the writer knows how to use semicolons. That's annoying. It means that the writer was more focused on herself than on the reader.

Semicolons have two functions. They connect closely related independent clauses and they serve as sort of uber commas to manage unwieldy lists. Independent clauses by definition can stand alone as sentences. That means that a semicolon between them is never necessary. Unwieldy lists are, by definition, unwieldy. That means that semicolons aid and abet bad writing.

"Mary is enjoying her new duties, as she handles the staff schedules, a task previously handled by Bob; oversees purchasing, where she has implemented a number of cost-cutting measures, increasing profits by 2%; and plans merchandising for the company's Northeast retail outlets, though Bob still oversees the Southwest."

That Frankensentence would not be possible without semicolons. Instead the writer would have been forced to break the passage into smaller, more comprehensible sentences. In other words, semicolons made this bad writing possible.

The only time semicolons are necessary is in a list of items that contain internal commas: The company has outlets in Bangor, Maine; Indianapolis, Ind.; Key West, Fla.; and Portsmouth, England. Here the semicolons are needed to show that Bangor and Maine form one thing and Indianapolis and Indiana another.

So both the semicolon's functions enable bad writing and only one of those functions is ever even necessary.

Why, then, have I softened on semicolons? Well, in recent years, I've been forced to acknowledge a few sentences in which semicolons were actually used well. That is, they improved the reading experience. For example, imagine a passage about a trip to visit relatives and imagine that, in the middle of the passage, is this sentence: "We made great time; there was no traffic."

Now, whether or not that semicolon is good depends entirely on what surrounds this sentence. Remember, the objective is to show that the two clauses are closely related. "Closely" is relative.

If the sentences surrounding this one had nothing to do with the travel time — if they talk about the in-laws and the holidays and worries that Uncle Ernie will get drunk again, then two sentences about the car ride may indeed be closely related enough to justify a semicolon.

Especially if the rhythm of the surrounding sentences is similar to these two clauses, the semicolon can balance the information in the passage — it can show that the travel time isn't important enough here to warrant two whole sentences.

I still believe that short, neat sentences are best. But occasionally I let semicolons stand.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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