Semicolon: for or agin?

I mentioned the San Francisco semicolon story in an earlier entry; now Derek Thornton, on, reports that the Financial Times has a semicolon survey /September 16, so still online now).

bq. ”You’re kidding,” said Ann Keatings, an applied linguist, as she absorbed the news I had brought from the US, where I have lived for the past 12 years: Americans see the semicolon as punctuation’s axis of evil. Or at least many of them do. “But I like semicolons,” she protested, “they allow a writer to go further.”

I have thought about this. I use semicolons and colons, but I must admit I don’t like semicolons in email. I can think of two or three people who use them, and it has a sort of effete effect.

The FT article, by Trevor Butterworth, is very interesting. But as Derek points out, their survey is ambiguous:

Are you for or against the semicolon? Answer: Yes / No

My answer is yes and no, or, as the Germans say, jein.

12 thoughts on “Semicolon: for or agin?

  1. I like a good semicolon used to add something extra to a sentence – as long as the (grammatical) subject changes; otherwise a colon or an n-dash is often more suitable.

    I also think it’s fine to use a semicolon instead of commas in a long and complicated list where commas are used even within each listed item – although I prefer bulleted points if possible.

    But I hate it when people use a semicolon to introduce a list, as in my mind that’s just wrong. It’s as bad as that hideous hybrid I had to use at school, which I’ll put inside square brackets to avoid confusion: [;-] – yes, a semicolon and a hyphen. Now what was that all about?

  2. David: the change of grammatical subject is a new one on me. The use in a list where bulleted points don’t work is good but maybe not controversial. I have never encountered the semicolon either to introduce a list or plus hyphen. Is it rude to ask where you went to school?!

  3. The change in grammatical subject was how an old university lecturer in Norwich explained it to us once, and that’s how I’ve used it ever since. I’ve then used a colon or a dash (en-dash only, as em-dashes are for Americans in my mind!) if the subject has remained the same.

    I went to school just north of Leeds, from the mid-70s ’til 1989. Perhaps it was just a few teachers. Others used :- , too, but I certainly remember a number of them making us write ;- when introducing a list. It was odd, I feel.

    I seen people use the semicolon by itself to introduce a list, too. That’s just wrong! Perhaps the problem isn’t that the use of the semicolon isn’t clearly explained to people, but rather that it isn’t explained at all.

  4. I did a semicolon plus space search on my blog, but most of the semicolons are in quotations. I don’t use them very often, because I don’t often write formal English. In translations, I use them in particular in situations where I have to keep the same number of sentences, e.g. statutes – and that is just a workaround. Otherwise, I would use them where I could have two sentences but would rather have them more closely linked. Here’s one from the Oxford Style Manual:
    ‘I know the city well; I’ve lived there all my life.’
    You’re not allowed to write that!
    Agree about the en-dash.

  5. With that Oxford example I’d use an en-dash or a colon (as it would be introducing an explanation for the initial utterance). But due to the subject being the same, I wouldn’t use a semicolon. It’s a rigid rule I follow, and I’m quite ‘prescriptivist’ about it, but maybe that’s the nature of punctuation. Some people stop their rigidity after full-stops and capital letters. Mine encompasses semicolons!

  6. Effete effect? In B.E. or generally?

    I like the subject switch as a concept. It warrants observing actual practice–haven’t consciously noticed it in A.E.

    Poll: Yes.

  7. Only in email. I can think of three British writers who are all quite old (at least as old as me) and who write a very careful English style in email and use semicolons (at least that I notice!). My email or messages to mailing lists is more like spoken English.
    A funny thing about the semicolon is the German name Strichpunkt. I think Germans write the Strich first and the Punkt second, whereas I do it the other way round. What do you do, Clemens? (I am going to bed so I won’t be replying soon)

  8. Just to clarify: my ‘yes or no’ related only to the badly phrased survey. The question was ‘Are you for or against it? Yes or no?’, but it should have been, ‘Are you for it? Yes or no?’ – I was not saying I have mixed feelings about the semicolon, although I do prefer to have none in email.
    And incidentally, the article is much more interesting than the bit I quoted!

  9. I’m with Ann Keatings on that – be it in English, French or German. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that someone could be against semicolons. Not use them, yes; but why deprive others of the option?

    (And what kind of derogatory term is “effete”? You like your e-mails more macho, eh?)

  10. “I think Germans write the Strich first and the Punkt second, whereas I do it the other way round.”

    You do? How eccentric :-) I admit to writing Strich before Punkt, yes.

  11. I like them less semicolonic, Chris!

    The article is good on the virtues of the semicolon. It would indeed say that I prefer my emails in the Hemingway style.

    I just encountered a semicolon in a book:
    ‘The flakes of fish fall easily from the bone; glossy, opaque and succulent.’ (referring to (good) cod)

    As for depriving others of the option: no, but I reserve the right to have feelings about punctuation.

    Btw, I was using ‘effete’ in the sense of overrefined rather than gay.

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