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A Word, Please: Writers who use semicolons aren’t thinking about the reader

Here’s a fun thing you can do with your writing: Take any two simple, clear sentences and use a semicolon to mush them into one. For example, imagine you have a paragraph with just two sentences.

“The alarm went off. Joe hit the snooze.”

Through the magic of semicolons, you can make that just one sentence: “The alarm went off; Joe hit the snooze.”

Isn’t that a great idea?

This works just as well for long sentences that you want to mush into super-long ones: “On a stormy morning in January of 2015, the alarm in Joe Jacobson’s swanky Santa Monica condo went off, ushering in the morning with an ugly screech; Joe, a hung-over stockbroker deeply immersed in a dark, disturbing dream about the woman who’d broken his heart, reached for the clock and pounded the snooze button with the force of a jackhammer.”

When you understand how semicolons work, you see that any pair of sentences can be made one. Then, when you’re done, those longer Frankenstein sentences can themselves be mushed together, and so on and so on, until every paragraph you write is just one long sentence! Neat, huh?

As you can see, I love semicolons. I think they’re the greatest thing since unsliced bread — ideal for building a word sandwich no one could possibly get his mouth around.

I’ll kill the facetiousness here and just be blunt: Semicolons are trouble. They’re rarely used to the reader’s benefit. Far more often, they’re used to his detriment.

They’re favored by writers who are so proud they know how to use semicolons that they’ll happily shortchange readers to show off their knowledge. They’re also a popular crutch among writers who don’t know how to manage all the information they want to convey, so they use semicolons to cobble it all into a single monstrous sentence.

True, sometimes semicolons are useful. Invaluable even. But those situations are so rare that most writers would be better off if they never learned how to use semicolons, which is an admittedly ironic segue to this week’s topic: how to use semicolons.

The semicolon has two jobs, one pretty bad, one terrible.

First, semicolons can be used to separate items that are too unwieldy to be handled by mere commas. The best example is a list of items that have their own internal commas: “I have lived in Miami, Fla.; New York, N.Y.; and Los Angeles, Calif.”

See how, if you replaced those semicolons with commas, the cities would be on equal footing with the states, as if this were a list of six places instead of just three? In this job, semicolons are indispensable.

The problem is, because semicolons allow you to join unwieldy items, they allow writers to create unwieldy sentences that would be better broken up into shorter ones.

But the other job of the semicolon is worse. Here’s the rule: Whenever you have two “closely related” clauses, you can join them with a semicolon instead of separating them with a period. Think about what might define “closely related” and you’ll start to see why, in this job, semicolons are bad news.

In any paragraph of three sentences, you could argue that two are more closely related than the third. In any paragraph of just two sentences, you could argue that they’re closely related because, obviously, they’re the only two in the paragraph.

So just about any time you have two sentences next to each other, you could make the case for using a semicolon to fashion them into one longer sentence. A lot of writers do.

They do so not because they believe the results will be better for the reader. They do so because they forgot the reader. They saw an opportunity to put their punctuation savvy on proud display and forgot that, as every professional writer knows, short sentences are more digestible. That’s why, to me, semicolons cause more trouble than they’re worth.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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