Can We All Please Ditch the Semicolon?
You know when you’re writing something on your word processor of choice, and you get that little green squiggly line suggesting a formatting issue? Then you right click and the suggestion is something vague about inserting a semicolon instead? Yeah? Well I’m sick of it, personally. Since when did semicolons become so vital in stringing together a coherent sentence?
We’ve all heard the arguments against semicolons already, and you’ve no doubt heard the Kurt Vonnegut quote before. If you haven’t, here it is:
“Do not use semicolons. They… represent absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
And while true and worth repeating, there is more to it than that.
What we consider to be a semicolon today was invented in Venice in 1494 by a publisher called Aldus Manutius, and for much of history it had no strictly defined function. For most of its lifespan, it has seemed to signal the need for a pause, or simply a change from the usual comma or colon, with some authors simply preferring to write them over the latter alternatives.
Somewhere along the way, it was assigned a purpose. That’s right: assigned. It existed and someone deemed some purpose had to be given to it. But why? If it exists for the sake of existing, then for efficiency’s sake it isn’t essential and doesn’t need to be there. There are thousands of examples in history where something no longer serves a function and becomes obsolete (more on those later), so why was the semicolon given a different treatment?
Open an English textbook and you’ll read how a semicolon will make a sentence more clear by breaking up lists, grouping connecting items, or most bafflingly of all, linking two independent sections that are closely associated.
Fair enough, I say to the writers of said textbooks, but what about a comma or a full stop?
Now, you might disagree, but a common example given of what a semicolon offers is the following from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. It is the opening line:
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Defenders of the semicolon will claim that this sentence here, about times being the best and worst simultaneously, cannot possibly exist in separate sentences, because they are too closely connected, and the meaning would be lost. Therefore, they say, a semicolon has to be the answer.
But how does this read if we exchange the semicolon for a simple comma?
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
At worst, it is the same, but in my opinion, it is far better. That is, in fact, how most translations and editions of Dickens’ novel have the opening line today anyway. Why? Because semicolons have become so contentious, while remaining so unnecessary for the structure of a coherent sentence, that we can simply remove it and it reads just as well and even looks better as a result.
Semicolons are vital to nothing but the grammar correcting programs out there desperately wanting to find fault, the intellectual phonies who with their usage want to promote a ‘proper’ way of writing, and to teachers wanting to infuriate and confuse students. Writers: don’t be pressured in to making your writing conform to the whims of a semicolon. Let’s make a concerted effort to do away with it, and with the extra space we’ve created on our keyboards, put something there far more useful.
Like what, you say? Well, here’s what I’ve been coming to. Below are just a few suggestions for an alternative to the semicolon (and these all exist if you want to look them up elsewhere), all far more useful:
Not only does it have a delightful name, but its purpose is also relatively useful compared to the semicolon. Rather than asking an excited question and using both ? and !, we can smash them in to one fantastic overlapping symbol and save a character. Much more efficient, eh?
The exclamation comma
See, the problem with an exclamation point/mark is it ends a sentence. But how often in real life do we shout something, or say something with excitement and gusto, and then carry on at a quieter volume? Enter the exclamation comma, an internal punctuation (i.e. not a sentence ender, but something that lives within a sentence, like a semicolon does) that can convey emotion in text without ending. I’m a big fan. Why stop at the exclamation comma? We can have the question comma too for all those mid-sentence questions we ask.
The irony mark/percontation point
I’ve heard this called numerous things, but basically it’s a backwards question mark used for the purposes of highlighting a rhetorical question. Sometimes in text, the irony of a rhetorical question can be lost, and as a result, to leave no doubt in the reader’s mind, to save them pausing to find the answer to something you’ve asked, this piece of punctuation can be entered to save confusion. Isn’t that much better?
The dagger and double-dagger
You know when you read something and sometimes there is a little asterisk (*) to signal a footnote? Well, you’ll be familiar with these two alternatives, which quite frankly, are infinitely more useful to a writer, and far nice to look at than countless asterisks’ as the footnotes rack up. Shown is the double-dagger. Terrific name and far more useful to a scholar.
My personal favourite, because pointing out sarcasm is half the fun, right? This little fella allows a writer to make absolutely no doubt in the reader’s mind that they are being sarcastic. Without it, someone could read, let’s say, an article on Medium, and take it entirely at face value without realising the intended sarcastic nature. And sure, you could say the job of the writer is to convey this themselves, rather than lazily click a button that tells the reader point blank, but having the option would be nice, wouldn’t it? Far better than sticking a :P on the end.
There are plenty of others out there, but the point remains that anything would be better than a semicolon. I often read an article or book and find it littered with the things, and I know it will be the editor or some program like Grammarly doing it. Whether we do replace the semicolon with something better, whether we abandon it and leave its space on the keyboard empty as a reminder of our past mistakes, or whether we just ignore it and hope it goes away, it really doesn’t matter.
The important thing is the semicolon is gone.
Don’t let it ruin your writing anymore.