On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

Writer Adam O’Fallon Price riffs on Kurt Vonnegut’s famous admonition against the use of semicolons. Vonnegut felt they are useless for any purpose except demonstrating pretension. Although Price concedes that, strictly speaking, one can make do with commas and periods instead — or, as he favors, the em-dash — he feels that semi-colons serve the useful purpose of connecting two related (“Independent but interdependent”) thoughts, maintaining more “cognitive rhythm” than if they were expressed as discrete sentences. 

The peak usage of the semicolon came between the mid-18th to the late-19th centuries, perhaps unsurprisingly as writing during that era involved long and elaborate sentences that feel too ornate to modern readers. Writers like Melville and Proust seemed to see as a virtue of the semicolon the ability to keep a sentence going. The modern shift toward shorter sentences and economy of storytelling (the “tautness” and “spareness” of prose almost universally touted as virtues by critics), and increasing brevity of personal communication, makes an outlier of anyone with an affection for the semicolon today. 

Via The Millions

I think my writing, especially the clinical notes I write in my psychiatric work, has a higher incidence of semicolons than almost anyone else I know. So am I archaic? Unskilled at clarity and simplicity in my prose? Burdened by tortured complexity? Or merely pretentious? Or do my semicolons help? 

2 thoughts on “On Semicolons and the Rules of Writing

  1. traducteur

    Orwell was hostile to the semicolon too, and so are publishers. We who love and use the semicolon must just soldier on as best we can. Our cause is just!

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  2. miguelmarcos

    I use semicolons regularly in the same way: two separate but related thoughts that I wish to express in one flourish.

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