I’m always surprised how many people misuse semicolons. I’ve even worked with talented writers who get them wrong as often as right. But rather than telling everyone to smarten up and learn how to use them properly, I suggest we’d all be better off just forgetting they ever existed.
For one thing, they aren’t very useful.
A common mistake is to assume they’re like sloppy commas or sloppy full stops. Something inbetween-ish and flexible that you can use as you wish, wherever, whenever, however.
But they’re not. That’s a dash – the sloppiest, loveliest, most useful punctuation mark of all. I love dashes. I love dashes so much I have to ration myself. In fact, the first thing I usually do when editing my copy is decide which ones will survive the cull.
Nope, a semicolon is nowhere near as good as a dash. It has pretty prescribed uses, none of them actually that useful. Off the top of my head (and yes, I really should Google this, but where’s the fun in knowing you’re definitely right?) there are just two official uses for the semicolon.
Plus a third, unofficial, one.
The first use is quite simple to grasp, and also quite rare to actually put into practice. It’s the one you were taught and then quickly forgot at school: the ungainly list of long things. Instead of using commas to separate the items in a list, you use semicolons when the list is made up of longer phrases.
The breakfast options are: bacon, egg and toast; bacon, egg, toast and beans; and bacon, tomato, egg, toast and beans.
The point of the semicolon here is simply to separate the items, marking the main breaks between them from all the mini-breaks that might pop up in a really dense, clause-heavy list.
That’s the simple use. Kind of useful, but not earth-shatteringly so. It’s like a slightly less clear bullet point.
The second official use is far subtler. You use a semicolon to counterpoise two related clauses and invite the reader to infer the exact nature of that relationship. If that sounds very niche, it is.
It had been days since I’d eaten anything; the cakes smelt like heaven.
The bank had run out of cash; the chairman announced a new share scheme for employees.
I can’t think of a similarly subtle type of punctuation. Jane Austen used them to devastating effect, I’m sure. But today? If the semicolon didn’t exist, I doubt we’d really need to invent it.
And of course, if some writers don’t know how to use a semicolon, how many readers know how to read one? Very few, I suspect.
So the case is pretty strong for just abandoning the semicolon altogether. But before we do, I have a confession to make. As well as the two official uses, there is the third unofficial use. One that can be very handy in certain circumstances.
Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
I wager most copywriters have been in situations where showing you’ve been to college is very useful indeed. In fact, I suspect most of the semicolons I’ve ever used have appeared in the first paragraph – and most likely the very first sentence. There’s something reassuringly erudite about a semicolon, and I’m certainly not above deploying one in a fix.
But perhaps the final word on the semicolon should go to Irvine Welsh. He may not shed a great deal of light, but he does score top marks for getting so sweary about it all:
“I use it. I’ve no feelings about it – it’s just there. People actually get worked up about that kind of shite, do they? I don’t fucking believe it. They should get a fucking life or a proper job. They’ve got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense.”
What do you think? Could he be one of those writers who don’t actually know how to use one? I’m not asking him…