Saturday, June 21, 2008

Damn You Semicolon!

I never was a fan of the semicolon. Honestly, for most of my life I had no clear understanding of its usage. It wasn't until I graduated college, had switched careers a couple of times and ended up an English teacher that I finally really figured out the whole point of the semicolon*. I honestly don't even bother with the semicolon in my classroom. Personally, I'd rather read something without any semicolons at all instead of a paper that reads like the kid just randomly spliced sentences together with this accursed mark because they're trying to put what they learned to use, especially when there's no actual use for the mark. It's really the only punctuation mark where proper usage is entirely a matter of subtlety and perception, and as such isn't something the typical high school kid is going to grasp with their begrudging effort master the subject. Sure the comma, with many of its "either way is really correct" usages, can get a little confusing, but it's not the c of the punctuation set either, redundantly doing the work other punctuation marks do just as well.

For a more interesting on the history of the semicolon, try this surprisingly readable Slate.com piece.

* This is also how I fully grasped the correct usage of the word whom. This wasn't a point I made a ton of mistakes with before, but it wasn't something where I understood the usage either. I'm now able to explain its usage pretty clearly, although I'd much rather hear a person who's forgotten that the word whom exists than someone who uses whom in inappropriate places. There's nothing worse when it comes to language than hypercorrection in my opinion.

12 comments:

JustinS said...

Vonnegut had the best take on the things:


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.

Hank Gay said...

A) It would have been funnier if Vonnegut had thrown a couple of semicolons into that quote.

B) Try explaining the hyphen, sometime. Or the subtle differences between em-dash and en-dash. And no, I'm not still bitter about my wretched technical writing professor. Not bitter at all.

Hank Gay said...

Also, if you're looking to up your intake of English-related—and offensive—humor, check out the following comic strips: We're Here to Help; The Bad Boys of Punctuation; The Return of Mr. Period; There Are Terrors Which Cannot Be Undone; not to mention the eminently topical In the Lair of the Semicolon

Jacob said...

Hank, I was looking for the one of those Mr. Period strips from Penny-Arcade that dealt with the semicolon and neither Google nor Penny-Arcade's search were working for me. I found every strip of those except that one.

Hank Gay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hank Gay said...

Glad to be of help while conjuring up excuses to type semicolons; I always like to mix in some helpfulness with my smarting off at the mouth.

I actually used the Penny Arcade Wiki to find Mr. Period's Filmography.

Julie said...

How about you learn to use the asterix? I found your post to be rather annoying. I'm fine with your position on the semicolon but disapprove of the way you handled the reference to whom.

The asterix should have gone at the end of the sentence about the word whom; not at the beginning.

Jacob said...

Julie: It's asterisk and it was placed correctly.

Courtney said...

I am a big fan of the semicolon and always have been. I believe it improves the flow of my writing and doesn't make sentences so choppy. I hate it when people use a comma when they really should be using a semicolon.

But I also hate people who use "whom" incorrectly just because they think it makes them sound smart.

Meaghan said...

I'm with Courtney on this one. I use the semicolon quite a bit but have noticed I'm in the minority. I actually learned about the semicolon some time in junior high, I think. I had a really good English teacher, and I'm a grammar nerd like that. (That doesn't mean I don't miss stuff, so if Mickey could refrain from correcting every little thing, that would be great.)

Jacob said...

Haha! Courtney and Meaghan have been to college. They're such elitist losers. I bet they even plan on voting for Barack Obama. He eats arugula. Hyuk, hyuk.

Mickey said...

I just figured out the semicolon within the past year; now I can't get enough.

Julie- ouch.