Why I Hate the Semicolon

semicolonI tolerate semicolons in some places—academic writing, essays, literature, or journalism. But in business documents, where they have no place, they seriously annoy me. Here’s why:

1. Semicolons are too vague, too wishy washy. All other marks are assertive and clear in how they order and clarify ideas. The semicolon, used as a soft break is more subtle, more intimate. In Semicolon Slut Dorinne Jenette writes

The semicolon is the seal, still warm, of Eros on written language. It signifies union by a grammatical invitation to intimacy; the semicolon is the shared blush of a successful seduction. As with all seductions, the relationships between clauses joined by semicolons are ambiguous; this is not the punctuation of hierarchy, but of nuance.

Okay, who can resist that? And here’s a gorgeous excerpt from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

“’I have been here before,’ I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of god; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.”

It’s hard to imagine this passage punctuated with any other mark. Periods would be too abrupt and em dashes too perky. The semicolons give the sentence the soft dreaminess that makes it so magical.

But don’t be seduced. This kind of effect is NOT suited to business writing. Business writers are impatient and purposeful. They’re not reading for pleasure or entertainment—that’s what fiction or poetry is for. Rather, they need you to give them information so they can use it. Most business messages are clear and simple, and writers often feel a strong need to puff them up. Resist!—keep things simple, clear and plain.

2. Semicolons are old fashioned. They make me think of English manors, of lords smoking pipes and wearing smoking jackets for fun. Who wants such stodginess in their writing? Who wants to do business with such bores? Semicolon users long for the good old days, when live was gentler, slower, happier and sepia toned. This is a fantasy. Life was never better, maybe different.

3. Semicolons are not conversational. Who talks with semicolons? Maybe this point reveals my preference for American style writing, which Ian Jack of The Guardian says, “comes closer to the way people speak than British writing.” And in Pause Celebre Trevor Butterworth says that semicolon appears much more commonly in British journalism than in American. Butterworth says American prefer plainness and clarity, and believes that language should do hold up a mirror to the world. He attributes this tendency to generations brought up on the philosophy of Strunk and White and quotes Ben Yagoda saying Struck and White’s “implicit and sometimes explicit goal is a transparent prose, where the writing exists solely  to serve the meaning, and no trace of the author—no mannerisms, no voice, no individual style—should remain.”

Even without the semicolon, personality leaves its mark. With too much personality and too many semicolons, the reader gets distracted from the message. And in business writing, it’s all about the message.

3. People use them to show off. Using semicolons correctly is a bit like giving a secret handshake. If I come across one used correctly, I always tip my hat to the writer—they’re part of the same club as me. But this is snobbery, and the only benefit of being a snob is being able to elevate yourself at someone else’s expense. Good for you if you know how to use them, better if you choose not to. Kurt Vonnegut says it better than I can:

“If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

(See more Kurt Vonnegut quotes.)

4. Hardly anyone uses them correctly. I read a lot of writing and only 10% of writers it right. (Okay, I made that statistic up, but it feels right.) Beware of Microsoft’s grammar checker—it will direct you to use semicolons in all kinds of embarrassing ways. When you use a semicolon, for your own credibility, use it correctly. If you’re not sure you’re using it correctly, avoid it.

5. They can always be avoided. It’s always gratuitous, never necessary. There is always a way to work around it with either a period, a conjunction or an em dash. The only time you ever need it is when you use it to separate items in a list when any one of the list items contains internal punctuation, such as commas. Even then, you can use a bulleted list and open punctuation.

Final words

“No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.”—Richard Hugo

“Let me be plain: the semi-colon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly. I pinch them out of my prose.”—Donald Barthelme

“They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature.”—Gertrude Stein

“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 f***ing believe it. They should get a f***ing life or a proper job. They’ve got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense.”—Irvine Welsh

How about you–love it? Hate it? Or maybe you’re normal and couldn’t care less.