Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Learning to Love the Semicolon

Yesterday, our Editorial Emergency crew Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner offered up a great antidote to semicolon-phobia. "Once you understand their appeal," they advise, "semicolons can be addictive." Simon and Julia aren't the only ones singing the praises of this humble punctuation mark. Lately we've seen surprising expressions of affection for the semicolon, from New York to Paris.

Last year the semicolon got some unexpected attention in the pages of the New York Times, reporting on a poster in the New York subways encouraging riders not to leave their newspaper behind after leaving the train. The sign reads, "Please put it in a trash can; that's good news for everyone." That elicited praise from many sources: Harvard English professor Louis Menand called the poster's punctuation "impeccable"; Eats, Shoots & Leaves author Lynne Truss said it was "a lovely example" of proper punctuation; and UC Berkeley linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg lauded "the burgeoning of punctuational literacy in unlikely places."

(I used semicolons just now to bring together three long independent clauses in one sentence while keeping them recognizably distinct. Also, please note that the Lynne Truss book is titled Eats, Shoots & Leaves, not Eats Shoots & Leaves, sans comma, as the Times article originally had it. The paper had to run a highly ironic correction to rectify punctuation in an article about punctuation.)

Inspired by the Times article, lexicographer Erin McKean was moved to create the Semicolon Appreciation Society, complete with its own line of semicolonic apparel. Erin even designed semicolon stickers "so you can edit signs to add semicolons where they ought to be."

A couple of months later, there were similar rumblings of semicolon appreciation in France, where the punctuation mark is known as the point-virgule. There was news of the establishment of a Committee for the Defense of the Semicolon, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had decreed that the point-virgule would from that point on be used at least three times a page in all official government correspondence. True, this news happened to break on April Fool's Day, but the bogus story ended up striking a chord with semicolon-lovers in France. As reported in the London Times and the Guardian, the April Fool's story ended up sparking a discussion of how the embattled point-virgule was emblematic of French anxieties over the decline of their national language.

Semicolonophilia in the English-speaking world isn't so wrapped up in issues of linguistic nationalism. Sometimes instead it gets tangled in the gender wars: as Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe wrote last year, certain male writers think of the semicolon as somehow less than manly. Language kibitzer James Kilpatrick goes so far as to call it "the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented."

But don't let the semicolon-haters get you down! Use it proudly... and wear it on a T-shirt if you're really proud.

(And for those of you wondering about the correct answer to Simon and Julia's semicolon quiz, Julia says: "And the answer is ... drumroll ... A, C and E. Thank you all for playing!")

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday August 19th 2009, 3:01 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'll read tomorrow. Tonight, I'll just love the semi-colon, that lonely mark of punctuation!
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 3:50 AM
Comment by: mark T. (Kent Town Australia)
I am a casual user of the semi colon, but sometimes don't use it for fear of appearing pretentious. On the topic of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the full Australian version refers to a man who can be called a Wombat because he eats, shoots, roots (shags) and leaves. The term root is perculiar to Australians, who are often amused to see North American visitors wearing T-shirts that say 'I enjoy a root' or hearing American broadcasters refering to 70,000 fans rooting in the stadium.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 5:02 AM
Comment by: Federico S. (San Zeno Naviglio Italy)
I totally agree with semicolon protection efforts, since I have been victim of semicolon-phobia more than once, while I was just humbly using it as I had learnt from primary and secondary schools. It seems that semicolon is particularly endangered in the scientific article-writing environment, where I usually work. I am going to buy a T-shirt soon.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 5:30 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
I already started loving it, and hope to have more of those punctuations in similar pretty lovable form.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 6:41 AM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
One of the editors for our magazine told me a couple months ago: "You really use a lot of semicolons." I guess I should feel gratified after all this.
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Last year the semicolon got some unexpected attention in the pages of the New York Times, reporting on a poster in the New York subways encouraging riders not to leave their newspaper behind after leaving the train. The sign reads, "Please put it in a trash can; that's good news for everyone."

Though this isn't a grammar and punctuation story, sticklers for correct usage of math terms may appreciate this. The New York subways used to have posters on the subway that told riders carrying an unlicensed gun would result in a minimum sentence of 3^1/2 years in prison. However, the 1/2 was raised as an exponent, so rather than a minimum of 3.5 years in prison, the subway poster touted a prison sentence equivalent to the square root of 3 years! That would be 1.732 years for all you math/grammar lovers out there.

@Mark T. - That's hilarious!
Wednesday August 19th 2009, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Heather (Calgary Canada)
mark T.: There is only pretension in the use of the semicolon if people use it sparingly, reserving it for use exclusively in more academic places. But that is a reason to use it more often!

I say, get that semicolon out there to battle the pretentious reputation it's got. I'll do my part by teaching my grade six class to understand and use it!
Thursday August 20th 2009, 1:44 PM
Comment by: James M.
More frequent and more careful use of the semicolon makes good sense; I might also say that a revival of the subtle colon would help correct the lack of discrimination of those who know only the period and the comma.

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Afraid of semicolons? Simon and Julia lend a helping hand!
While the semicolon is underused, the exclamation point suffers from overuse.