Word Play: was Kurt Vonnegut right to hate semicolons?

Word Play is a series for the grammar police, former English majors, word nerds, pedants, and people who are curious about the evolution of language, grammar, standardization, style, and prose. Red ink may bleed on semicolons.

Oh, the semicolon; it’s universally loved and despised all at once.

The use of the semicolon in modern day—whether it is used in academia, journalism, everyday writing—is hotly debated for us word nerds. The semicolon’s primary function in modern English boils down to three uses:

  1. To connect two or more independent clauses that are closely related in a sentence. Using a comma would produce a run on sentence, which is a no-no.
  2. To use it as a super-comma when separating items in a list; it is mainly used to clarify the sentence. “While traveling for great food, my favorite places were Paris, France; Tokyo, Japan; and Copenhagen, Denmark.”
  3. To sit before conjunctive adverbs like “however” and “therefore.”

These are clearly defined uses yet semicolons are arguably on the way out as people use them less and less. As our writing becomes shorter and shorter thanks to Twitter, PowerPoint presentations, and text messaging, will we have the need to use a semicolon to separate our independent thoughts into one giant sentence?

More importantly: should we still use semicolons?

The case against semicolons comes from Kurt Vonnegut

As outlined above, the semicolon performs unique and similar functions that other punctuation marks can and cannot do. A semicolon is a tool for those who would like to use it; those people tend to be college-educated. But people still adamantly hate it and refuse it. Why?

Because the hatred of a semicolon all stems from a really, really good quote from none other than the acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut. In his book A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut writes, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Of course, semicolon haters (and perhaps the mass public alike) forget that immediately following this famous Vonnegut quote, Vonnegut continues to say, “And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on, I will tell you when I’m kidding.” So is Vonnegut kidding or not? Well, that’s the beauty of Vonnegut. Though in all likelihood, he is not.

It sounds like I’m advocating for semicolons here, but I’d like to remind you that for the most part, semicolons are largely unnecessary. Two independent clauses do not have to be joined by a semicolon. They can be replaced with a period. Using a semicolon before conjunctive adverbs like “however” and “therefore” is also an option. A semicolon can also be replaced with a period. The semicolon’s super-comma function can also be replaced with careful rephrasing and the use of parenthetical or em dashes (but it’s probably easier to just use a semicolon).

There is great discrepancy among scholars, students, and everyone in between about the use of semicolons. But if that still doesn’t satisfy whether or not you should use semicolons, I have made a pro and con list in the spirit of Vonnegut’s twinkling prose.

Why we should still use semicolons

  • How else will we wink at people when we are too lazy to scroll through our emoticons?
  • College degrees are more valuable in society than ever. You’ll want to prove you spent some serious dough on earning that increasingly expensive college degree.
  • All of our keyboards would become obsolete as proper typing etiquette has your right pinky finger sit on top of the semicolon button.

Why we should never use semicolons

  • They are pretentious. The last thing any self-respecting American will ever want to be called is pretentious.
  • College degrees are elitist. By showing how frugal you are with your grammar, people can infer you decided not to sell your firstborn for a paid college degree.
  • Most of us don’t even use random symbols like ~ _ \ | all the time. It also shares its keyboard space with a colon so it will not be missed.

Personally speaking, I compromise on my love and hate of the semicolon. My advice, dear readers and writers, is to take Vonnegut’s advice with a grain of salt. For example, I never use any semicolons in my creative writing because that’s the style I gravitate toward. However, in my professional, pay-the-bills writing, I think the use of a semicolon is sometimes warranted and even welcomed; it connects ideas and adds fluidity better than other punctuation marks.

6 Fun Facts About Semicolons

By Emily E. Steck

As part of Quietly's Word Play series, here are six facts about the origins and use of the semicolon.

  • Greek and Latin Origins

    By Emily E. Steck

    The Greeks use of the semicolon was actually used to indicate a question like a Latin question mark. To pause or separate sections, the Greeks used an interpunct (·).

  • The Etymology of the Word "Semicolon"

    By Emily E. Steck

    The word semicolon combines "half" (semi) and "part of a verse" (colon). It's symbol combines the use of a colon and comma.

  • The Renaissance Brought Semicolons Back

    By Emily E. Steck

    Italian typesetter Also Manucci found the semicolon from the first printing of Greek and Roman classics during the 1490s.  

  • Standardization of Use

    By Emily E. Steck

    In the late 17th century, semicolons, colons and commas attempted to become standardized. Semicolons were to be used to indicate a pause twice as long as commas.

  • Coding

    By Emily E. Steck

    In computer coding, semicolons are known as terminators and separators. They are used to separate statements. 

  • TL;DR

    By Emily E. Steck

    The acronym for "Too Long; Didn't Read" joined the Oxford Dictionary Online, along with selfie, phablet, bitcoin, twerk, buzzworthy, and emoji.

Image: Patrick Krabeepetcharat/Shutterstock

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