In a recent pithy blog post—Assorted tips, hope they help—Seth Godin offered a random smattering of suggestions sure to increase your productivity and improve your life. They run the gamut from “Placebos are underrated by almost everyone” (#4) to “Taking your dog for a walk is usually better than whatever alternative use of your time you were considering” (#12).
I couldn’t agree more.
Now I love Seth like a brother, and I thoroughly enjoy his posts; indeed, I often find myself nodding vigorously in agreement with his trenchant tidbits. But as a bona fide word nerd, I take umbrage at number 5: “It’s almost never necessary to use a semicolon.”
On its face, it sounds like Seth is suggesting that your writing will improve exponentially if you simply banish the semicolon from your textual toolbox, an artifact from another age that’s outlived its usefulness. A more generous, expansive reading might lead you to believe he’s intimating that we just use too darned much punctuation in general—simplify!
Now, I won’t argue that some of the finest penmen in history have been overly enamored of the semicolon (have a gander at my post on Moby-Dick), but yo, I disagree with the current movement to truncate the English language to a series of abbreviated words, phrases and sentences à la twitter (think: Dick and Jane). Sparse prose is a wonderful tool when properly used. But just as the indiscriminate application of the semicolon does not render one’s prose erudite, the elimination of all punctuation coupled with the introduction of terse sentence structure does not necessarily yield a “Hemingway moment.”
Rather than simply excising the semicolon from your writing, why not learn to use it correctly? A semicolon is used to separate independent clauses; it can be employed as a “strong comma” or a “weak period” (see The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn). Punctuation is merely a tool—you wouldn’t grab a maul when the job calls for a pair of needle-nose pliers, would you? So don’t throw your tools out; learn to wield them with grace and ease instead.
“It’s almost never necessary to use a semicolon”—except when it is.
Aden Nichols is a freelance editor and writer. He is available for print & digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. You can contact him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.