Monday, September 19, 2005

I am very fond of the semi-colon

and in fact I would not hesitate to describe it as my favorite punctuation mark (I like periods too but it would be really spartan and minimalist to say that they were your favorite); and I've just been tipped off that there's a GREAT article in defense of the semicolon by Trevor Butterworth, writing this past weekend in the FT:

To the semicolonic, the case for is as compelling as a cocktail on a first date: you want to be relaxed, convivial, elegant - and neither a hectoring preacher nor a mumbling maniac. You want to woo with words. As the brothers Fowler wrote in their classic guide, The King's English, 'A style that groups several complete sentences together by the use of semicolons, because they are more closely connected in thought, is far more restful and easy - for the reader, that is - than the style that leaves him to do the grouping for himself; and yet it is free of the formality of the period... ' Or, as the great Cambridge literary critic F.L. Lucas advised in his masterful (and sadly out-of-print) Style, ' ...a writer should be able to vary his length; like a bowler.'

Just the other week I was telling a chapter-writer that I thought she had overused commas and underused semicolons; yet the point of this article is that semicolons are embattled and on the verge of extinction in American writing (or, in Butterworth's words, "Americans see the semicolon as punctuation's axis of evil"). Hmmm....


  1. I love semicolons, not least because they serve a great function and require some level of skill to use correctly.


  2. I loved the article, too, although Butterworth is perhaps excessively fond of the colon as a conjunction for independent clauses. Or was that to make a point about the possibilities for semicolons?

  3. It does seem as if that colon use is mostly to make a point. I was picturing Butterworth wrangling with his editor about whether he could keep the punctuation as he originally submitted it; I suspect they arrived at some compromises along the way.

  4. I find I cannot get away from semicolons; I never used them properly it seemed, much to my high school English teachers' chagrin.

  5. My Honors Writing Teacher linked us to your blog and it instantly excited me. I'm probably a self-proclaimed semi-colon zealot. I appreciate this blog. Best of luck in all you do!

  6. Am I the only one who loves semicolons? I try hard not to use them gratuitously, but I sprinkle them throughout my posts and emails when appropriate. One could certainly go overboard with semicolons, but if you neglect them entirely you're missing out on the subtle flavor of the language.I don't find that many people are particularly fond of semicolons, or even give them much thought! However, semicolons are obviously important to programmers, and there's even a Semicolon blog! Thanks to the internet I have finally found my kindred spirits.

    Now if only we can get people to stop abusing the poor comma....