There is often disagreement on the appropriate use of the semicolon. But how can this be? After all, punctuation is grounded by rules. When looking at the definition, the mark seems simple enough: it links two related independent clauses. John Van Bloem agrees that “[the semicolon’s] use isn’t super complicated.”
Thus the cause of dispute, if not from the definition, must lie in the nuances of the syntax.
One of the most famous statements against semicolons comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who warns against the use of the “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing” in A Man Without a Country. He claims them to only “show you’ve been to college.”
In a sense, many agree with the latter statement, saying semicolons give an educated quality to writing. To Van Bloem, they “lend an air of erudition to [his] literary stylings.” Eric Reickel enthuses that the semicolon “shows sophistication,” and Anna Grish describes it as “a sophisticated punctuation mark.” Some, like Marc Macdonald, view the punctuation as a smart aleck rather than a scholar—which one can imagine Vonnegut implied. Macdonald claims that “semicolons are for showoffs,” although later admits, “I use semicolons all the time.”
The former statement, dismissing semicolons as unnecessary, remains troublesome. Admittedly, semicolons can often be replaced with a comma and a coordinating conjunction, making the necessity of the punctuation questionable. Diana Sung agrees that “there’s lots of ways to join independent clauses without using the semicolon.” And though indifferent to the punctuation’s use, she goes on to say, “You can write very, very well and never use them. Many great writers never use them.” Vonnegut is a clear example. He remains a literary giant and is prevalent in high school literature.
On the other hand, there are those who would rather use semicolons to join clauses. Grish likes to use them “to connect two sentences that are similar in thought instead of making short, choppy sentences.” She prefers them to the comma and coordinating conjunction, feeling the semicolon “brings your writing up a notch.”
Whether or not the semicolon enhances flow is subjective. Macdonald raises concerns regarding the tone it creates: “[The semicolon] makes [people] seem like they may be from the 1890’s.” From this perspective, the punctuation is a deterrent. It is a break in style that shifts the reader’s attention away from the topic.
The argument can equally be made that the semicolon creates a feeling of expectancy, urging the reader to continue, to find out what more the author has to say. It lets the reader know that the thought is not complete; there is more to learn; there is more to explore. As such, the connection between the phrases is clearly made, and the flow is preserved.
Of course, the effectiveness of the punctuation can only be argued if it is used correctly. And for high school students, misuse of punctuation, namely the semicolon, is a common issue. Stephanie Fink likens its use to sugar in a dessert: “It adds just the right amount of sweetness when measured, but if it is dumped in unchecked, the final product is inedible.” Much like new bakers burn cookies and over-sweeten cakes, students do not always meet success with their attempts to use different punctuation. Christine Keleher explains that “a lot of times, kids try to write complex sentences,” and when they do, their sentences “seem like run-ons… like they’re losing their train of thought.”
Sung, however, is not concerned with these student mistakes: “a lot of times they’re practicing and learning and figuring out how to use [semicolons] effectively.” Similar to Keleher, she observes that “when students first learn about them, they seem to go kind of crazy with them.” Nevertheless, she finds this “kind of fun and entertaining.” Logically, the only way for a student to find an appropriate balance in punctuation is through experimentation.
There is no common consensus on semicolon use, and there will likely never be one. Van Bloem proclaims himself as “pro-semicolon,” and Reickel names the semicolon as his friend. But while Grish advocates for its increased use, Macdonald advises his students to limit its appearance to once or twice per page.
Regardless of support or criticism of the punctuation, it is a facet of the keyboard and is here to stay. So English Department Chair Tom Kollai need not fear of a world “without the semicolon bridging the gap between the period and the colon.” It will always be around to cause controversy among writers.