Wick Communications

Semi-unnecessary punctuation

In Writing techniques on June 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm

As I often do, I agree with Vonnegut. The semicolon – a punctuation mark so mischievous that it looks to be winking at you – seems designed to prove that the author is smarter than the reader. Bad idea; don’t try that at home!

That said, I have been known to use the little bugger, and I know that some of you do as well. In fact, I think it’s vastly overused in our pages, so I thought I’d take on one of the great problems of our time. (Oh, I’m kidding.)

One of my favorite reference books is the Associated Press Guide to Punctuation. Like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, it’s brief and breezy. Here’s what it says about our friend, the semicolon.

The semicolon is a compromise. It drifts, somewhat nebulously, between the period and the comma. To be pedantic, the semicolon means a shorter pause than a period and a longer pause than a comma.

Long or short, good stylists try to avoid it as too formal; decked out as it were, in a starched shirt and a black suit. You would do well to keep semicolons at a minimum. There are usually options.

The guide then goes on to list some very esoteric uses for the semicolon. To my thinking, it can almost always be replaced by your everyday workmanlike period. The only exceptions I see is to make a stylistic point (which requires a bit of grace that many writers simply lack) or to avoid what the guide calls “a blizzard of commas.” Nobody wants that. …

Here’s an example of that usage:

Malarkey is survived by three ex-wives, Sammy Simpleton, of Irvine, Calif., Cindy Swanson, of Minot, N.D., and Twinkletoes Nelson, of Las Vegas, Nev.; two sisters, Mindy Malarkey and Mandy Malarkey, both of Beaverton, Ore.; … etc.

Go ahead and kill a semicolon today. Vonnegut and I will thank you.

Clay

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  1. My thoughts exactly, Clay. Even before reading your piece of semicolons, my news editor and I were discussing them and the uslessness of them, for the most part. Your example from an obituary is exactly the same example I stressed (different names, of course) to avoid the avalanche of commas. Nice to know my dislike of semicolons is shared with others in the profession.

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