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The Semicolon Con


 “The worst idiots, even among pedagogues, are the teachers of English.”

 H. L. Mencken


      It’s not enough, apparently, that the forces arrayed against the semicolon have mounted a frontal assault, openly trying to exterminate it in some grammatical war of attrition (see: What’s Punctuation, and Where Can I Get Some?); they seem to have formed a fifth column amongst many of the grammarians who still tolerate its use. Because the few uses these “authorities” do recommend are so truncated, oversimplified, and impoverished as to discourage most of their readers from employing this punctuation unless they’re desperately attempting to sort out a complicated list…and left with no other rational choice but to hesitantly type a semicolon into it — trembling in fear that at any moment the Grammar Police might burst through the study door, confiscate the small dot over the comma, and rescind their license to write.
      It’s hard enough to write as it is, without comparative twits churning out one style guide after another — in print and on the internet — filled with intimidating dictates which can cripple an immature, but otherwise promising, prose stylist. If I sound bitter, it’s because I have occasion to read a lot of style guides.
      Don’t we all? (I’m assuming, if you found your way to this page and have read until now, you’re one of those tortured souls who actually care about this stuff — you know, language?) The problem with this morass of (sometimes) good, (usually) mediocre, and (often) bad advice is that it falls on the ears of the impressionable — those who genuinely want to know. It’s like taking some kid who comes to you seeking a bit of genuine enlightenment and, instead of really teaching him much of anything, you load him down with abridged copies of the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate and King James, the Koran, the Upanishads, the Tripitaka, some Yeats poetry, the Mabinogion, an Edda or two, Bullfinch’s mythology, and toss in some Zen koans, then tell him, “The truth’s in there; so sort it out.”
      The fact that all of our English grammars are written in a single language doesn’t make whatever linguistic truth they might contain less elusive.
      Let’s try wrestling with a specific orthographical sliver of it, shall we: semicolon use. And we don’t have all day, so let’s narrow that down to one particular aspect: the prevalent notion that (without mounting a good legal defense) you should never place a semicolon before a coordinating conjunction. People love examples, so here’s one.
      I could easily place a comma into this sentence; but I choose not to.
      And I can hear the alarms going off now down at Usage Central. The Grammar Police, Punctuation Division, are strapping on their red pencils as I continue to type. “Did you see what he just did?” / “Yeah, and it was premeditated.” / “We’ll throw the book at him.”
      The “authorities,” you see, insist I should remove the but or replace the semicolon. And under other circumstances, I might; although either of those options would subtly alter the emphasis. So, in this case, I’m keeping both in, because the combination conveys precisely the defiant contrast I want in that sentence. It’s my choice, after all: and it’s really a matter of style rather than rectitude.
      Many modern grammarians (or grammarians from any era, I suppose) fail to grasp that. This isn’t to say there should be no standards for English grammar and punctuation, no rules whatsoever. But the hallmark of punctuation and grammar ought to be clarity; and governing rules should be derived from the usage of good writers, not arbitrarily imposed upon writers to determine whether they are any good.
      There’s actually a style guide in circulation that tells us there are only two common [my emphasis added] uses for a semicolon. The first, it says, is to separate items in a list, and the other “legitimate” use is to separate two independent clauses in one sentence. The advice goes on to inform the innocent that “It's risky to use semicolons anywhere else.”
      No wonder they’re falling into disuse.
      I’m reminded of a line from The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. When one of the characters comments that she had no idea there were flowers in the country, the other responds: “Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.” All depends on how you want to define “common,” doesn’t it?
      Well, throughout the prose of most authors I admire, semicolons are not uncommon — much like flowers in the country.
      The pity of it is that I can’t even estimate how many other style guides I’ve encountered which either parroted or paraphrased this same advice. They list two — if they’re feeling generous…or wary of counterattack, perhaps two and a half or three — circumscribed functions for the punctuation, then warn against its use.
      And most of these warnings actually take the form of dictates.
      Here’s one from one of the most popular and respected grammar sites on the internet: “You should never use a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and,’ ‘so,’ and ‘but’ to join two main clauses; that's the job of a comma.” In all fairness to the author, she doesn’t seem actually hostile to semicolons (even uses one in that last sentence; also coherently discusses clauses, conjunctive adverbs, etc.), for which I am grateful — and she does go on to mitigate her own advice: “Nevertheless, there are a couple of instances where it's OK to use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction.” The first exception she allows is this: “If you have a long sentence with multiple independent clauses, and some of those clauses contain internal punctuation such as a comma, you can use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction to make the separation between clauses more clear.” The second, of course, is to separate items in a list.
      Just goes to show: Never say never. Ya might have to tack 
-theless on to it soon.
      This advice is simply wrong; and what chiefly makes it wrong is that it’s dispensed in the form of a pronouncement. But what I object to most is that other, even less thoughtful, people tend to further condense it, then pass it around ad nauseam as an ironclad rule: “Never use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction. Amen.”
      Let’s see what some other authorities have to say about it.
      In Common Errors in English, Paul Bryans states: “When a compound sentence contains commas within one or more of its clauses, you have to escalate to a semicolon to separate the clauses themselves.” I don’t entirely disagree with that, but it’s interesting. Did you notice that now you not only “can,” but “have to”? I would have said it’s more a matter of discretion — but consider the source. He then gives this example: “It was a mild, deliciously warm spring day; and Mary decided to walk to the fair.” I must admit, I like his illustration. That single little comma, hunkered down after an adjective, allows us to — I’m sorry, makes us — use the semicolon.
      (This won’t get me off with the Grammar Cops, though. If you recall, the illustration I gave you had no commas whatsoever. But we’ll get back to that.)
      Mr. Bryans goes on to say: “Many people are so terrified of making the wrong choice that they try to avoid colons and semicolons altogether, but I’m afraid this just can’t be done.” With that, I wholeheartedly agree, so let’s continue.
      The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, tells us that a semicolon is “stronger than a comma but weaker than a period” and “can assume either role, though its function is usually closer to that of a period.” We’re next told: “It’s most common use is between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction.” Well, sure it is.
      CMOS also discusses its use before a (conjunctive) adverb “when used transitionally between independent clauses” and specifies then, however, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, and therefore, “among others” (while observing that “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes’ famous phrase, “remains an exception to this usage” — English is filled with exceptions).
      However, it then goes on to say: “Before a conjunction. An independent clause introduced by a conjunction may be preceded by a semicolon, especially when the independent clause has internal punctuation.”
      Please note the word “may” in that sentence. Last dictionary I checked, it grants permission. At the very least, it implies possibility. Then take special notice of the word “especially.”
      Finally, CMOS mentions its use “before expressions such as that is or namely”…and (except for examples not cited here) the entry’s done.
      Garner’s Modern American Usage (by Bryan A. Garner) describes the semicolon as “a kind of ‘supercomma’” and says the mark “separates sentence parts that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences.” (Who said authorities have to agree?)
      Garner then enumerates four uses:

      First, the semicolon is sometimes used to unite closely connected sentences; typically, as in this very sentence, there is no conjunction between clauses.
      Second, the semicolon sometimes separates coordinate clauses in long, complex sentences.
      Third, the semicolon separates items in a series when any element in the series contains an internal comma.

      Okay, so far. Except for slightly more measured language, that’s about what you’d expect. But wait for it — because in his final section he points out a basic use for the semicolon that you’re not likely to see mentioned in your common (yeah, that’s the way I intended it to be read) style guides.

      Fourth, the semicolon sometimes appears simply to give a weightier pause than a comma would. This use is discretionary. A comma would do, but the writer wants a stronger stop — e.g.: ‘There is never anything sexy about Lautrec’s art; but there’s also never anything deliberately, sarcastically anti-feminist in it.’ Aldous Huxley, ‘Doodles in the Dictionary’ (1956), in Aldous Huxley, Selected Essays 198, 206 (1961.)

      Wow, discretionary. What a concept.
      I particularly like the example he gives us. The sentence is neither long nor complex. There are some, however, who would argue — while gritting their teeth over seeing a semicolon there at all — that it must be, since it has that solitary comma. Which is nonsense, of course; Huxley used that semicolon merely for effect.
      So, imagine their chagrin when I let you in on this one. Remember that part of the “rule” which allowed you to use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction between independent clauses if “some of those clauses contain internal punctuation such as a comma”? Well, the internal punctuation is discretionary, too. No comma necessary. Just the contrast, the balance, the effect. Bet no one in one of your bargain rack style guides ever told you that.
      But don’t just take my word for it — I’d think less of you if you did.
      To drive the point home, I’ll provide some additional examples from undeniably great writers. This, after all, is the only genuine test of good usage.
      When I realized I’d have to address this issue, I knew I’d need ammunition; and when I have to cite a primary source of excellent prose style, I usually turn first to Mark Twain. Knowing that practically any sample of his writing would demonstrate this principle, I grabbed the first one that caught my eye, Following the Equator. A short search revealed that Twain used over two dozen semicolons in the first chapter, over four dozen in Chapter 2, almost five dozen in Chapter 3, etc. (And remember, this is just one of his books, selected at random.) At any rate, for the purpose of this discussion there’s no need to examine them all; so I’ll limit myself to only those which seemingly violate the “rule” — spread by myriad “grammarians” to inhibit once-open minds — that a semicolon is never to be placed before a coordinating conjunction (unless said conjunction is located within an otherwise punctuated series of items; or unless the sentence is long and complicated, and contains, in addition, at least one comma; or unless the structure of the sentence, absent the onerous necessity of a semicolon, would produce bewildering confusion). All of these examples meet those strict criteria. None of them contains a conjunctive adverb. I eliminated any that indulged so much as one comma, and even pitched out those which might reasonably be construed as too long or complex. But they all do contain a short coordinating conjunction preceded by a semicolon.
      I pulled all of these out of Chapter 1 of the aforementioned book by Mark Twain. It took about two minutes. 

The electric lights burned there as late as the ladies and their friends might desire; but they were not allowed to burn in the smoking-room after eleven.


In five days I drove out the desire to smoke and was not obliged to keep watch after that; and I never experienced any strong desire to smoke again.

       I imagine the prescriptivists are grasping at straws already. Well, they are a bit long, they say, and there’s an additional and joining the compound predicate in the first independent clause of that last one, so…maybe…
      Okay, this one is short. And you can’t say the reason for a semicolon is an and confusion, because the coordinating conjunction following the semicolon is but

He was taken ill himself and could not come; but I did not need him.

       Or this:

I was a well man; so I gave thanks and took to those delicacies again.

       That last one might even reflect your revised attitude toward semicolons, once you’ve finished this essay.
      Yet the next one’s my favorite, not only because it illustrates the point so well but also because it seems to make an accidental remark about this whole sorry punctuation scare, perpetrated upon an unsuspecting public by “authorities” who don’t write half as well as Twain did. 

It seemed such a pity; but there was no help for it.

       I borrowed the next from Conall Hamill of St Andrews College, Blackrock, Ireland, author of a short piece called “A Survival Guide to Punctuation,” who endeared himself to me with this sentence from the introduction: “People who can understand the rules may break them, if the need arises; those who cannot, may not.”
      In the section headed “Semi-colon” (that’s how he spells it; it’s perfectly acceptable — let it go), he lists four main uses; and none of them, interestingly enough, is the old standby about subdividing a list if the elements within it already contain commas. One is simply: “To join two ideas that are connected logically.” But the first is: “To create a sense of balance between two phrases.” As an example, he gives us a sentence from H. L. Mencken: 

A Trinity College man here tells me the Irish don’t say Jesus; but he is the son of a schoolmaster.

       Please note that this sentence of Mencken’s isn’t encumbered by any additional punctuation. A short compound sentence composed of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, it does contain a semicolon placed before that conjunction — but no commas. By the rigid and short-sighted standards I mentioned at the beginning, there’s no excuse, and no recourse to the argument that this construction is long and complex. Mencken placed that semicolon there willfully, deliberately, simply because he chose it for emphasis.
      This example also allows Mencken and me to take another shot at “schoolmasters.” Who you gonna believe, them or H. L. Mencken?
      Then I thought I’d take a quick look at G. K. Chesterton, to see how he used them. It goes without saying that he did so extensively — not to mention precisely, and to great effect. But did he ignore the prescriptivist dictate against placing one before a coordinating conjunction not flanked by a comma? Of course, he did. It didn’t take long to find a juicy example either. Again, I just selected one of his books, but this time not quite at random. Since a theme seemed to be developing, I went for What’s Wrong with the World and turned immediately to Chapter 31, “The Truth About Education”…just for grins. I came up with this within seconds:

They might be the most trivial facts or the most preposterous views or the most offensive qualities; but if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education.

       It seemed applicable to the discussion on more than one level, not just the punctuation, but the “preposterous views” part.
      Now, I’ll give you he had some opportunity to use a comma in that sentence, but he chose not to. He chose instead to put in one semicolon…before the coordinating conjunction.
      On a roll, I next turned to George Bernard Shaw. (Since most of the writers referenced here also wrote fiction — and the punctuation in Shaw’s plays is deliberately idiosyncratic anyhow — I selected only samples of their nonfiction. This was a conscious decision, intended to foil my critics, who sometimes say things like: Well, you know, you can get away with anything in fiction.) In Shaw’s case, I started with Maxims for Revolutionists (are you beginning to detect some sarcasm here?), and once more, it only took a moment to find: 

Masters and servants are both tyrannical; but the masters are the more dependent of the two.


There are no perfectly honorable men; but every true man has one main point of honor and a few minor ones.

       But the real gems were in Treatise on Parents and Children: 

The risks of liberty we must let everyone take; but the risks of ignorance and self-helplessness are another matter.


This is a blasphemous lie; and the fact that it is on the lips of every nurserymaid does not excuse it in the least.

       I thought that last one appropriate to sum up the whole argument.
      Oh, I know he didn’t write this line to refute a preposterous “rule” about semicolon use, yet I doubt his tone would have been much less indignant if he had. Besides, the semicolon in his sentence refutes the rule beautifully.
      So, what can we glean from all this?
      Well, for openers, that standard usage should be dictated by the actual example of excellent writers, not dictated to writers by arbiters of usage.
      That some of the rules you were taught regarding semicolons are arbitrary.
      And that the best source for brilliant writing style is the work of brilliant writers themselves.


      Of course, this is clandestine information. It’s not as if just anybody can find the works of Aldous Huxley, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, G. K. Chesterton, or George Bernard Shaw in the public library or on the internet. And even if they do, there are now standards in place to keep people from ever writing that way again.
      We have authorities to put a stop to that sort of thing.
      In fact, I probably shouldn’t have told you any of this — “need to know basis” and all that.
      You think they can’t read what you type (well, until it’s published, at least)…but you’d be wrong. Those cheap style guides worm their way into your superego, supplant your editorial conscience, then stand behind you as you compose, placing a cold hand on your shoulder, telling you to “take out that comma” and “delete the friggin’ semicolon.”
      What I’ve divulged here amounts to an Internal Affairs investigation of the Grammar Police, Punctuation Division — they’re the worst — and I’m still gathering evidence.
      But they’re on to me, and…
      Oh, shit. I think they are kicking the door in. They’re after the essay, man. ’Cause they don’t want this kind of information made public — but I’ll get it on the web if it’s the last thing I do.
      If you read this, tell my wife and colleagues I tried. And I’ll keep typing until



All Rights Reserved 2011 by Alfresco Press & Tony Danhakl