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Friday, April 4, 2008


posted by on April 4 at 14:16 PM


Is the semicolon at an end? I generally try to avoid them, but mainly because I was at an impressionable age when I read Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the semicolon:

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.

I think that semicolons do have a use, but I don’t know if I can express exactly what that use is; maybe like a connected thought that veers off at ninety degrees? I don’t know if I’d miss them if they suddenly went extinct, though.

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I actually talked about this with this dude I had sex with for money (for drugs). Interesting stuff.

Posted by Mr. Poe | April 4, 2008 2:20 PM

I use them all the time; but when I do, it usually shows I DIDN'T go to college.

That Vonnegut quote is priceless.

Posted by Dougsf | April 4, 2008 2:20 PM

I'm addicted to semicolons, but I learned about them in high school (on my own, because they were still busy teaching about commas), not college.

He's right about arts though. SORRY MOM AND DAD!

Posted by Gloria | April 4, 2008 2:20 PM

Let's all conquer the apostrophe before we move on to the subtle semicolon.

Posted by Commatose | April 4, 2008 2:22 PM

I loves me some semicolons; they make the world go round.

Posted by Jay | April 4, 2008 2:23 PM

I'm pretty sure my fabulous use of a semicolon is what got my letter to the editor published in the NY Times. . .

Posted by Michigan Matt (soon to be Balt-o-matt) | April 4, 2008 2:28 PM

Poe; a ho.

Posted by It's Mark Mitchell | April 4, 2008 2:28 PM

Not until bands stop putting commas in their names like Good Dream, Bad Breakfast; Molly Shannon, Molly Shannon; and Husbands, Love Your Wives. Then we can eradicate the semi-colon.

God, I hate when bands do that.

Posted by Ari Spool | April 4, 2008 2:29 PM

I also loves me some semicolons. They're perfect in a pinch. DOWN WITH PENNIES!

Posted by kid icarus | April 4, 2008 2:29 PM

Also, how will we wink in emails?

Posted by Ari Spool | April 4, 2008 2:30 PM

Can we kill the word "whom" next? I've always thought that it sounded archaic.

Posted by JC | April 4, 2008 2:31 PM

I like semicolons. I once tried to budget my use of them, but it just felt wrong somehow; my sentences were insufficiently long and meandering.

Posted by tsm | April 4, 2008 2:33 PM

When semicolons are outlawed, only Charlton Heston will have semicolons.

Posted by Dr_Awesome | April 4, 2008 2:34 PM

Paul, you're breaking my heart.

Posted by Gillian Anderson | April 4, 2008 2:36 PM

Ever wondered why the semicolon is so handy on keyboards? It's for programmers. We use them all of the time when writing code.

So... if you are writing English I would worry about losing the semicolon; I'm glad it's so handy on my keyboard.

Posted by nerd | April 4, 2008 2:36 PM

I use semicolons, not often, but they are quite nice when listing variables for big nasty equations. Indeed communicating much of the modern research and bettering our world through it requires a semicolon. Okay Back to dissertation.

Posted by Sasha | April 4, 2008 2:36 PM


Posted by heywhatsit | April 4, 2008 2:38 PM

I'm too comma happy, sometimes a semi-colon is better.

According to Strunk & White: "If two or more clauses grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon."

Jesus, Strunk & White always puts me to sleep.

My favorite Vonnegut is when he appears in the Rodney Dangerfield movie "Back to School" He writes a paper about himself and then Melon gets an "F" on it. The professor says "whoever *did* write this doesn't know the first thing about Vonnegut."

Posted by PopTart | April 4, 2008 2:40 PM

NEWS YOU CAN USE!!!: Gillian EEEXXXXXFFFIILLEESSS Anderson has commented on this post!!!

As you were.

Posted by Mr. Poe | April 4, 2008 2:46 PM

@11: Whom sounds really weird in speech, but in print, I think it's necessary.

(Cut and pasted excerpt, if this helps) “he/him” or “she/her,” and that every verb with a tense must have a subject — you should solve the “who/whom”.

Posted by Dougsf | April 4, 2008 2:48 PM

I use dashes quite alot -- probably when I should be using a semicolon. But, like Ari, I mostly use them when I'm making a list of things where the items have commas in them.

Posted by Julie | April 4, 2008 2:48 PM

I think semicolon haters are just afraid of them because they don't know how to use them. A semicolon connects two complete sentences; I would've changed your semicolon use in this post had it come through copy.

Posted by Kim Hayden | April 4, 2008 2:49 PM

Before writing for the Stranger, and being educated by the copy department, I lived in fear of both the em dash and semicolon. I used neither.

This is despite writing sentences of sufficient complexity and length to require the use of a GPS receiver, flares, a ten pound bag of rice and a Saint Bernard to find your way though.

(This comment is em dash and semicolon free.)

Posted by Jonathan Golob | April 4, 2008 2:52 PM

Every time I use a semicolon, I picture Kurt Vonnegut shaking his head at me in disappointment. I usually end up changing it.

Posted by madamecrow | April 4, 2008 2:54 PM

Dearest Gillian, the written word isn't adequate to express your fake British-ish accent. BTW, how IS Madonna?

Posted by My name is URL | April 4, 2008 2:55 PM

I use them all the time, but then I probably read too much John Irving in my formative years.

Posted by Levislade | April 4, 2008 2:59 PM

I've found the "dash" has replaced (and as often augmented) a role once played by the semicolon within my writing.

The dash seems to me more flexible in its clause-joining powers -- bridging a greater space between short pause of a comma and the full stop of a period.

Posted by Timrrr | April 4, 2008 3:02 PM

What is the world coming to?


It should be "Poe: a ho."


Posted by STJA | April 4, 2008 3:08 PM

Semicolons are for programming.

Posted by Patrick | April 4, 2008 3:10 PM

@7: A colon would have been more appropriate there.

Posted by Aislinn | April 4, 2008 3:12 PM

Whoops... took too long before posting, sorry to repeat @28.

Posted by Aislinn | April 4, 2008 3:14 PM

@7, that should probably be Poe: a ho. Not that I'm a prescriptivist; I understood exactly what you meant.

Posted by Spoogie | April 4, 2008 3:20 PM

@7, sorry to pick on you. Looks like I was unintentionally playing pile-on; shoulda looked before I leapt.

Posted by Spoogie | April 4, 2008 3:24 PM

I was recently editing a piece that my SO was working on when I offered up a bit of criticism.

ME: "Gee, you sure are a big fan of the semicolon."

HIM: "I love semicolons! They're artful, and not many people know how to use them properly."

Fact of the Day! George Orwell actively campaigned against the use of the semicolon, believing it to be a contributing factor in the erosion of language and meaning. He argued that the semicolon blurs the distinction between the comma and the colon, thereby obscuring the exact nature of the relationship between the two phrases it sits between.

I tend to agree with Orwell, however I love that topics of conversation around my house on any given night regularly include such dorktastic things as my SO's passion for punctuation marks and literary devices.

Posted by Anti-Semicolon | April 4, 2008 3:41 PM

I always use semicolons for linking independent clauses; they come in very handy.

Posted by Catman | April 4, 2008 3:46 PM

I love semicolons and "whom" (both in writing and in speech), but I also like spelling words with redundant 'e's on the end, like "shoppe" and "grille" and "olde", so I guess I'm not a good judge of how our written language should evolve.

Posted by spencer | April 4, 2008 3:57 PM

@34: I don't understand George Orwell's problem. Sure, people mix up commas and semi-colons, but colons and semi-colons? How could those ever be confused? They don't even do *close* to the same job; while confusing commas and semi-colons is like confusing cell phones with PDAs, confusing colons and semi-colons is like confusing cell phones with blocks of cream cheese.

(Comment 7 nonwithstanding, of course.)

Posted by Christin | April 4, 2008 3:58 PM

Vonnegut really had it in for trannies and hermaphrodites. I wonder what brought that on?

Posted by inkweary | April 4, 2008 4:04 PM

As a programmer I have an intimate and loving relationship with ;

Posted by mnm | April 4, 2008 4:14 PM

Whatever. Vonnegut was a hack.

Posted by Irena | April 4, 2008 4:45 PM

Semicolons have plenty of established purposes, but it's the sheer nature of their obscurity that will keep them alive. There will always be the William Safires of the world who will use them just for the appearance of erudition.

Posted by Gitai | April 4, 2008 4:58 PM

Without a semicolon, "All contents &copy Index Newspapers, LLC" would be, well, just that.

Oh, well, that's interesting, the slog software added the missing semicolon on &copy when I previewed, but your replacement isn't recursive, and &copy got around it, but of course I had to skip previewing to get that in (so I don't know for sure what this will look like when posted)

Also without a semicolon,

main(){printf("hello world/n")}

would generate error messages rather than the intended output.

Posted by another nerd | April 5, 2008 2:37 AM

Hi Paul--you used the semicolon incorrectly in your own sentence, so maybe you're better off doing without. The part of the sentence after your semicolon could not stand alone as a sentence; it would have better been separated with a comma or a dash.

I love the semi, and would hate to remove any useful and unique device from the toolbox. It can add a nice rhythm to the usual declarative drone.

Bring it on, haters!

Posted by Tom | April 5, 2008 8:49 PM

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