In Search of the Semicolon

The trend in punctuation seems to be less is more; that is, it is better to have less punctuation than to have more punctuation. The trend began with the comma, but seems to be spreading to other non-sentence-ending punctuation; to-wit, the semicolon.

The semicolon is a time-honored punctuation mark to separate two or more independent clauses that are joined without a coordinating conjunction or by use of a conjunctive adverb such as however, therefore, thus, and furthermore. The semicolon is also used to separate elements in a series that is long and complex or that has internal punctuation.

The purpose of using the semicolon is to bring clarity to what might otherwise be a confused or misleading sentence.

I recently edited a book in which I made consistent use of the semicolon — only to receive instruction from the client to replace the semicolons with commas. When I asked why, the response was that neither the particular inhouse editor nor the author approves of semicolons and thus they wanted use of semicolons minimized.

What does a professional editor do? The reality is that the professional editor has little choice. He who pays the piper can call the tune! Unfortunately, this attitude toward the semicolon is symptomatic of a very minimalist trend in editing: The author’s choices are sacrosanct unless … (with unless never really being defined so that it can be consistently applied).

With the passing of each day, we move further away from good grammar being a goal to strive for and closer to the Twitter standard of language — short and ungrammatical, isolated statements that convey an imprecise meaning.

Minimizing punctuation is not inherently a nefarious goal. After all, the purposes of punctuation are to interrupt an illogical flow and to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Another purpose is to define the parameters of a written idea. Consequently, the less disruption via punctuation that is necessary, the clearer the statement being made and the better the communication from author to reader.

Yet being ruled by a broad mandate to “minimize the amount of punctuation” is to ignore the fundamental purpose of punctuation and grammar: to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Stated another way: to enhance communication between writer and reader. What good does it do to spend hours creating a message that no one can understand?

I recently read a newspaper article whose headline was “For a full ride to graduate school, a tweet is the ticket.” (The headline differs depending on the source, but the article remains the same.) The University of Iowa was offering a full scholarship, worth about $37,000, to the best tweeter of a 140-character tweet in lieu of a second application essay. I understand that it takes time to read, analyze, and evaluate an essay, but a tweet in lieu of such an essay?

The University of Iowa is not the only institution to offer a tweet scholarship, and this worries me. As an editor I recognize that tweets are intended to be informal quips. I also understand that it takes great skill to condense a 1,000-word article (essay) to its 140-character essence. But to make that condensation something has to give, and what gives is spelling and grammar. I’m not so sure that I want to be medically treated by a doctor whose claim to fame is the he or she is a Twit who successfully condensed his or her life story down to 140 characters. Nor do I feel comfortable in following the business advice of a 140-character Twit. After all, it will be my money on the table, not the Twit’s money.

More important, however, is the message that is being sent about communication skills combined with grammar and spelling skills. Before Twitter, most of us considered grammar, punctuation, and spelling to be essential parts of good communication. Lack of skills in one meant a deficit in the others and incomplete communication at best, miscommunication at worst. That is being turned topsy-turvy as Twittering becomes the established route to success. With Twitter, every character counts, so it is better to write 8 than ate.

This also affects the professional editor because Twitter has no grammar or spelling standards. If the Twitter language becomes the norm and accepted, what we end up with is a free for all with no rules — no punctuation, no grammar construction, no misspelling — because every character counts. If authors and inhouse editors begin to accept this lack of rules as the standard, we will see a decrease in the need for editors and an increase in poorly written material (poorly, that is, in the sense of poorly communicating the author’s message to its audience).

I see the death spiral of the semicolon and comma as the harbinger of chaos to come. It is not that we should flood our work with punctuation but that we should be guided by what is best and necessary to communicate clearly and accurately, not by a desire to participate in the newest minimalist trend.

What do you think?

reposted with permission from An American Editor

1 Comment on In Search of the Semicolon

  1. My use of the semicolon has been restricted for some time. But I write genre fiction and it seems appropriate. The semicolon can indicate a complex sentence, and in genre fiction the emphasis is on the story rather than the telling. So it’s better to use simpler sentences.
    For other types of fiction, and for non fiction, the semicolon is just about essential, IMO.

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