An American Editor

July 19, 2011

In Search of the Semicolon

The trend in punctuation seems to be less is more; that is, it is better to have less punctuation than to have more punctuation. The trend began with the comma, but seems to be spreading to other non-sentence-ending punctuation; to-wit, the semicolon.

The semicolon is a time-honored punctuation mark to separate two or more independent clauses that are joined without a coordinating conjunction or by use of a conjunctive adverb such as however, therefore, thus, and furthermore. The semicolon is also used to separate elements in a series that is long and complex or that has internal punctuation.

The purpose of using the semicolon is to bring clarity to what might otherwise be a confused or misleading sentence.

I recently edited a book in which I made consistent use of the semicolon — only to receive instruction from the client to replace the semicolons with commas. When I asked why, the response was that neither the particular inhouse editor nor the author approves of semicolons and thus they wanted use of semicolons minimized.

What does a professional editor do? The reality is that the professional editor has little choice. He who pays the piper can call the tune! Unfortunately, this attitude toward the semicolon is symptomatic of a very minimalist trend in editing: The author’s choices are sacrosanct unless … (with unless never really being defined so that it can be consistently applied).

With the passing of each day, we move further away from good grammar being a goal to strive for and closer to the Twitter standard of language — short and ungrammatical, isolated statements that convey an imprecise meaning.

Minimizing punctuation is not inherently a nefarious goal. After all, the purposes of punctuation are to interrupt an illogical flow and to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Another purpose is to define the parameters of a written idea. Consequently, the less disruption via punctuation that is necessary, the clearer the statement being made and the better the communication from author to reader.

Yet being ruled by a broad mandate to “minimize the amount of punctuation” is to ignore the fundamental purpose of punctuation and grammar: to make clear what would otherwise be unclear. Stated another way: to enhance communication between writer and reader. What good does it do to spend hours creating a message that no one can understand?

I recently read a newspaper article whose headline was “For a full ride to graduate school, a tweet is the ticket.” (The headline differs depending on the source, but the article remains the same.) The University of Iowa was offering a full scholarship, worth about $37,000, to the best tweeter of a 140-character tweet in lieu of a second application essay. I understand that it takes time to read, analyze, and evaluate an essay, but a tweet in lieu of such an essay?

The University of Iowa is not the only institution to offer a tweet scholarship, and this worries me. As an editor I recognize that tweets are intended to be informal quips. I also understand that it takes great skill to condense a 1,000-word article (essay) to its 140-character essence. But to make that condensation something has to give, and what gives is spelling and grammar. I’m not so sure that I want to be medically treated by a doctor whose claim to fame is the he or she is a Twit who successfully condensed his or her life story down to 140 characters. Nor do I feel comfortable in following the business advice of a 140-character Twit. After all, it will be my money on the table, not the Twit’s money.

More important, however, is the message that is being sent about communication skills combined with grammar and spelling skills. Before Twitter, most of us considered grammar, punctuation, and spelling to be essential parts of good communication. Lack of skills in one meant a deficit in the others and incomplete communication at best, miscommunication at worst. That is being turned topsy-turvy as Twittering becomes the established route to success. With Twitter, every character counts, so it is better to write 8 than ate.

This also affects the professional editor because Twitter has no grammar or spelling standards. If the Twitter language becomes the norm and accepted, what we end up with is a free for all with no rules — no punctuation, no grammar construction, no misspelling — because every character counts. If authors and inhouse editors begin to accept this lack of rules as the standard, we will see a decrease in the need for editors and an increase in poorly written material (poorly, that is, in the sense of poorly communicating the author’s message to its audience).

I see the death spiral of the semicolon and comma as the harbinger of chaos to come. It is not that we should flood our work with punctuation but that we should be guided by what is best and necessary to communicate clearly and accurately, not by a desire to participate in the newest minimalist trend.

What do you think?


  1. Rich:

    Your wrote: “Yet being ruled by a broad mandate to ‘minimize the amount of punctuation’ is to ignore the fundamental purpose of punctuation and grammar: to make clear what would otherwise be unclear.”

    Exactly. It takes what it takes.

    A mandate to minimize the amount of punctuation is much like telling Mozart that his music has “too many notes.” 🙂

    Best wishes,
    Jack Lyon
    The Editorium


    Comment by EditorJack — July 19, 2011 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

  2. In my submissions, I’ve found the semicolon to be brutally misused. Authors use semicolons to separate independent and dependent clauses, or for a variety of hard-to-understand reasons. I’ve also found that in fiction, the semicolon has largely been replaced by the em-dash, Of course, where you have two independent clauses, a period is a possible consideration. The sense in the business seems to be that readers don’t have the energy to deal with long sentences. Replacing semicolons with commas, though, is not only bad English, it also makes it difficult to follow the meaning of what you’re reading. Obviously my career advice is to do what they say but make sure your name isn’t associated with the output. Rob Preece


    Comment by Rob Preece — July 20, 2011 @ 1:42 am | Reply

  3. I found this particular article hard to let pass without a response. I am a writer and the disappearance of the correct form of the english language is disturbing from a writers point of view as well as that of a parent. As my children progressed through the education system I became aware that the emphasis had shifted from teaching correct grammar to describing the latest soapy that was the rage on TV. It didn’t seem to matter that the students were producing incorrect spelling or that their work had grammatical errors in it, the main thing was to get them to look introspectively into themselves. Correcting spelling or grammar seems to a large extent to have gone by the by, as long as the student can produce something.
    Adding to this worldwide problem is the new language that has evolved with the birth of Facebook, Twitter, and especially the cell phone. Sure it is cool to be savvy with the latest text coding that our teenagers find more familiar than the english they are taught in class; ultimately it is the destruction of on language in favour of another.
    How sad it is that an entire generation has not been taught the correct way to communicate, let alone write.


    Comment by Anita Dresden — July 20, 2011 @ 7:23 am | Reply

    • I looked at the two articles. I understand that there is disagreement about the use of punctuation, but the blogger’s two articles are simply wrong. First, as regards semicolons: They do have a purpose and the solution in all cases is not to break up the sentence into multiple standalone sentences. A much better resource for users of American English is Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner (see page 681 for his analysis); I am not in a position to recommend resources for users of non-American English.

      Second, the blogger’s position on commas is simply wrong regardless of the version of English you use. The blogger gave an example of “Tom, Dick and Harry were all interested in learning about polyamory.” and then wrote: “Note that you do not use a comma before the and.” Such an absolute rule is on its face wrong. I thought that had been settled by the infamous Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. Do you mean, for example, “eats, shoots, and leaves” or “eats shoots, and leaves” or “eats shoots and leaves”? Under the blogger’s rule the choice would be only the third option, “eats shoots and leaves” but the author may well have meant the first or second option.

      I have a client who adamantly hates semicolons; at least that is my deduction because every time I insert a semicolon the client insists it be changed to a comma. Yet there are many instances when the comma is insufficient and the semicolon is not only correct, but absolutely required for correct understanding. I have given up suggesting that the semicolon should remain and just do what the client wants — it isn’t my name on the book.

      But the one thing I won’t do is pay any attention to blogger’s who give grammar tips in absolute terms and which are consistently erroneous. I have not bookmarked the quickwritingtips blog. 🙂


      Comment by americaneditor — August 2, 2011 @ 7:10 am | Reply

  4. I agree with you.

    I think correct grammar is being ousted under the guise of it not being ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’. I think the real reason is most people are being taught incorrectly, resulting in them not being able to write properly; hence the derision of proper grammar.

    Like you say, I wouldn’t want to be treated by a doctor who only knew a condensed version of medicine. It appears, however, that writing skills are no longer lauded as they once were. What happens to those future doctors when they can no longer read and write to a standard that ensures they can competently do their jobs? The absolute first step in being accomplished at anything is desire; the second, education. No one can perform properly without the fundamentals.

    What’s next, a builder who decides not to put doors on your newly built house because he ‘doesn’t do doors’? Semicolons are one of the fundamentals of writing, as cement is to bricklayers. Leave them out and the whole structure becomes flimsy. Sure, the writing may just work on one level but it won’t be ‘right’.

    I enjoyed reading this article. This is my first visit to your blog. I will definitely be back.

    Best Wishes



    Comment by Paul Andrew Russell — August 2, 2011 @ 11:36 am | Reply

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