The melancholy decline of the semicolon
Researchers found that it is becoming rarer in British fiction
The semicolon is a profound public mystery; the only punctuation mark that regularly unites readers and writers in deep-seated repugnance. Time to celebrate then — this week researchers at Lancaster University announced that semicolon use is becoming rarer in British fiction, falling in use by 25% over the last 30 years.
In 2017, author Ben Blatt discovered that semicolon use dropped by about 70% from 1800 to 2000. The ghosts of several authors are now rejoicing. Writers like George Orwell, who called semicolons “an unnecessary stop”. Or Edgar Allan Poe, who preferred the dash. Or Kurt Vonnegut, who famously advised against their use, saying “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” The symbol is facing the same melancholy fate as the dodo, the dinosaur, and the Soviet Union. Extinction.
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When the semicolon first appeared in the work of the Renaissance scholar and printer Aldus Pius Manutius, in a book describing a climb to the summit of Mount Etna, it was a hybrid between a comma and a colon. Its function was to prolong a pause, or to create a more unmistakable separation between clauses in a sentence.
Nothing has changed; semicolons are exactly what Manutius invented them to be in 1494. Their decline in fiction, and the suspicion that surrounds their use in everyday communication, tells us a story about the times we live in.
Lancaster’s linguists believe that the end of the semicolon, along with shrinking sentence lengths in novels, is a reflection of a society addicted to social media. The shift, commented Justin Tora of the University of Galway, is part of a “more realistic way” of writing for the modern age.
They may be right. The semicolon is an element of language that communicates stops, pauses, reflections, and cigarette breaks within a sentence. It connects loose ends with disparate ideas; the semicolon lets you have it both ways. Today having it both ways is considered little more than hypocrisy, not an exercise in artistry. The digital world churns; Twitter is not an arena known for reflection. Semicolons, then, are snottily elitist and shadily indirect.
Like many fading species, the semicolon has been usurped by a more violent, adaptable rival. “We live,” says Cecelia Watson author of Semicolon, “in the Era of the Dash.” It’s an accurate observation. The dash is brutal, unsympathetic, slashing, and impossible to be confused about — it takes you, frictionlessly, to the point. The dash invites no ambiguity and wastes no time. The punctuational equivalent of tearing a heart from a chest.
To read back those writers who put the semicolon to best use, like Jane Austen, or Virginia Woolf, is to enter a world where time is abundant. The OED describes the semicolon as “indicating a pause… more pronounced than that indicated by a comma.” The pronounced pause is where the real beauty of a semicolon lies. You can feel it in one of Woolf’s greatest sentences, as she describes Clarissa Dalloway hearing Big Ben: “First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”
Put a dash where the semicolon is there and a whole moment in time and feeling would evaporate. The loss of such moments is what the end of the semicolon signals.
This is a beautiful little article. A homage to the reviled semicolon.
As for Virginia Woolf’s sentence (“First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”), I agree the semicolon provides just the right pause, but that sentence is also rhythmically balanced around the center point of the semicolon, and there’s the half rhyme between ‘musical’ and ‘irrevocable’. Woolf was a musician as much as a writer.
I was taught: comma, 1 second pause; semi-colon, 2 second pause; colon, 3 second pause; full stop, 4 second pause.
That was in an era when we had time to read and absorb the prose.
I do love the semi-colon in a sentence to bring an enlightening or explanatory comment to the first part of the sentence.
One of the joys of creative writing (for me) is actually punctuation. I use semicolons and I like them!
I was taught to use a semi-colon between two connected or juxtaposed ideas. There are places where it just feels right to use one, and nothing else will do.
It’s good to conjugate a verb;
producing many active words.
Dangerous to decline a noun;
they know too many names, I’ve found.
But semicolons, surely missed;
impossible, would make this list.
Nice and witty, Mike.
Very nice indeed. Thank you.
I have to say I use semicolons much more now than in the past. The fact that they are not taught in school at primary level will do nothing to avoid its (possible, but ultimately unlikely) demise.
So do I. It’s depressing to think that as writers become more attentive to things such as rhythm and mood as they gain experience and more capable of using semicolons, editors will insist they avoid using them.
The labyrinthine beauty of the complex sentence. It does demand that you have a longer attention span than a gnat of course.
I love long sentences, when properly composed, of course; the elegance and flow can be enthralling. The staccato rhythm of short sentences can sometimes be apposite, but often is merely irritating.
Good points, Linda.
Ultimately, the disdain for the semicolon is a disdain, or at least a distrust, of long sentences.
A disdain born of the envy of minds incapable of parsing them.
Speaking as an engineer/scientist type, they’re absolutely fundamental to writing a complex flowing argument that draws to a conclusion.
Helping my kids with their writing homework, I always encourage them to experiment with different sentence structures and consider things like pace, rhythm and repetition. Correct punctuation adds meaning and emphasis beyond the words for savvy readers, but this goes over the heads of those whose reading diet consists mainly of social media and text-speak.
May I add my two-pennies worth about the problem of paragraph mis-usage. Often I see (even in articles on this site) text seemingly broken into random paragraphs, where the same idea rolls over to the next paragraph; I would dearly love to see this stopped.
I wonder whether people have lost the ability to maintain concentration for more than a few sentences. This trend seems to be getting worse.
Yes. See Bret Weinstein’s piece on gun ownership, for example.
Worse still is the growing habit of thinking every sentence deserves its own paragraph.
It is misleading to equate the semicolon with the dash.
The semicolon indicates a break, a pause. It separates two clauses, i.e parts of speech each having a verb, as opposed to a phrase, which need not, for which a comma suffices.
A way to test easily which is required is to read the passage aloud. If your voice stays raised, you are ending a phrase; if it drops halfway, you are ending a clause; If it comes to a decisive downbeat halt, that is a full stop.
The dash, on the other hand, is not a divider but a connector. It says: Hang on there, don’t sign off yet, I’ve a bit I want to add.
So the dash is more like the colon, which also indicates it is leading to something more, but in a more major way.
Increasing use of the dash may perhaps be considered an indicator of people who are in too much of a rush to put together a complex sentence. They get a thought out partially, then think of something else to add, so make use of the dash to connect the two thoughts, flying all the while by the seat of their pants.
Since I have complained frequently of being trolled on Unherd, honesty compels me to admit that attempts to educate Guardian commenters about the semicolon’s use saw me howled mercilessly off the page as a ruthless, unfeeling elitist who had no sensitivity to the egalitarian tendernesses of the average reader. So I tried signing off as “your friendly grammar Nazi” in an attempt to educate whilst being egalitarian, but it made no difference. I was told in no uncertain terms that Nazis weren’t welcome.
The semicolon can also be used to hint at, but not declare, a cause-and-effect relationship between two statements. At school, I was told that the sentence “Johnny rose from office boy to editor of the newspaper; his father was the owner” was not actionable, but replace the semicolon with a colon, and you’d soon find yourself in court.
I always thought they joined up two parts of almost run-on sentences; they help them flow. But I like the dash a lot – strong, yet lazy, punctuation. And Lloyd’s writing is very good.
I agree. I love the semicolon.
A new hashtag;
Born as Haiku.
I honestly don’t recall them being taught when I was at school some twenty odd years ago. An example of the many things that have left me wondering what else were they not teaching me. So, don’t blame me if my posts are rubbish!
If you’re missing them, become a software engineer; we get to use them all the time. Although you’ll probably get sick of them when you need to recompile after forgetting to add them at the end of a statement. Seeing “syntax error: missing ‘;'” has long since ensured I’ll never be misty eyed over its absence; just irritated and angry by its very existence.
I wasn’t taught it either. I remember my A-level economics techer (who was in his fifties at the time) openly asking us for what they are used. Understanding their correct use requires a basic level of knowledge of grammar sadly lacking in modern, functionally illiterate Britain.
This is the type of writing I enjoy most; writing for the writing’s sake.
As someone who sifts job applications, I always advise people to steer clear of semicolons. Done well, they can be elegant and useful. Done badly, they are haphazard and confusing. More often than not they’re done badly and just pop up in the middle of sentences, apparently at random.
They should be used two join two clauses without a connector. They are really not difficult and the circumstances of their proper use is seldom encountered. Using them properly is achievable with just a dash of (please fetch the smelling salts) grammar.
I’m not sure short sentences represent the effect of social media or the general dumbing down and infantilization of our society that was charging forth full steam ahead long before Jack Dorsey had touched a keyboard.
With commas, dashes, parentheses, and colons available I have little use for the semi-colon. I think dashes are excellent for setting an item or idea off from others – providing a tone change which the semi-colon does not effect.
Semi-colons add, in the right circumstance, a subtle distinction though. They allow the construction of a balanced sentence where the two clauses twist from one idea to the other like the movement of a well-oiled hinge.
They are primarily an aid to judges; in the delivery of long sentences.
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I’ve been using both semicolons and dashes for decades;, but I never properly learned how to use them in school; I gradually picked up their usage by from reading various nineteenth and early twentieth century writers. My impression is that they are falling out of usage not out of any kind of hostility toward them, but because the attention span of most modern readers has become so short. They have never learned to hold so many words together in their heads to develop complex and nuanced ideas. Why go to the trouble? Odds are high a text message will arrive in the middle of it that they just have to respond to.
I remember a long time ago while reading through the works of Kafka, my amazement with the dawning realization that one story was constructed entirely of one sentence – but in such a way that one never felt out of breath while reading it. It was a marvel. Recently I was rereading Daniel Deronda and had to stop and remark to my wife how astonishing it was: the length and breadth of thoughts Eliot constructs, using sentences extending so far beyond the modern horizon. It is a pity so many modern readers are too afraid to venture out of sight of the shoreline now.
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