Why the Semicolon must DIE

In my head, all the snarky, badass, ridiculously talented and fucking hysterical writers hang out in one corner. They cheer me on and make me laugh – almost always at myself. I aspire to be like these people. Today, I get to introduce you to one of them. BALLER.

I met Guy Bergstrom on Twitter and promptly checked out his website. And laughed so hard and for so long that my husband came running in my office to check on me. True story. Once I recovered, I emailed Guy to tell him his writing is utterly fantastic. So birthed a friendship. It doesn’t hurt that he despises the semicolon as much as I do.

But you’re about to learn all about that.

While I’m away, play nice and try not to break anything.

***

A guest post by Guy Bergstrom

For years, the semicolon has lived among us, sucking the life out of strong sentences and giving English lit PhD candidates and literary novelists a handy tool to write sentences that never, ever come to a conclusion.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: It is time, for the good of humanity, to take the semicolon behind the barn and put a bullet between its eyes.

 


Note: I don’t think Spock has to die. Spock rocks, and two Spocks are even better. I’d go for three, as long as they gave me one Evil Spock with a goatee from that episode where there was a parallel universe and such. If you asked any Spock about semicolons, he’d think through it and say, “The semicolon does indeed appear useless and should be dispensed with.” Then he’d blast the planet of the Pretentious Semicolon Users with all kinds of photon torpedoes.

 

 

Why kill the semicolon? I’ll give you all kinds of reasons.

Reason No. 1: The Semicolon is Indecisive

Either you end a sentence or you don’t. End it with a period, pause it with a comma, spice it up with phrase set off by dashes (or whisper to your reader with a little parenthetical).

Semicolons are for writers who can’t decide. Should I stay or should I go?

Reason No. 2: The Semicolon is Pretentious

Every smartypants writer goes through a phase where they try to outdo their professors by writing even denser, “more difficult” text that is so full of sturm and drang. The stuff so packed with insane Brobdignagnian adjectives and concepts – like the Kant’s categorical imperative and how it relates to Maslow’s hierarchy of need – that nobody, not even the writer, understands what they’re trying to say.

Which is the point. “I’m so smart, flying at such an intellectual height, that yes, you may have difficulty wrapping your tiny little head around all those big, complicated ideas. Sorry. Happens all the time. Maybe, one day, you’ll get it.”

Semicolons were invented for these people. The ones who don’t believe in short sentences, or explaining it like I’m five. (Reddit!)

Some writers never grow out of this phase. And they use semicolons as a tool to make the simple complicated and the complicated impossible.

This will continue until we whack them upside the noggin with Volume 6 of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Reason No. 3: The Silly Semicolon Stands in the Way of Progress

For some reason, keyboards only have a few punctuation marks. The same old ones that have been there since Abe Lincoln wrote term papers using a typewriter he carved out of a tree or whatever.

Comma, semicolon, colon, period, exclamation point, question mark. That’s all you get.

No. Give us more.

Don’t we deserve other choices? Isn’t the English language evolving at the speed of text? LOL and ROTFLMAO are OMGing into the dictionary faster than Miley Cyrus can take off her clothes.

Stick the interrobang on the keyboard, so we can write awesomely intense sentences that end in a question.

 

Give us the acclamation mark for happy joy-joy.

 

Give us a mark for ironic sentences, another for sarcasm and something for doubt.

 

 

 

Because there is something we need to ask ourselves: is English alive or dead?

If it’s dead and unchanging, then we’re stuck with the stupid semicolon forever and ever. But if language is more alive and kicking than Celine Dion’s singing career, then there’s hope for us all, and a chance to make it better – by casting aside obsolete and unhelpful garbage like the semicolon and embracing the new, the fresh and the interesting.

All I ask for is a new punctuation mark showing my distaste for the Kardashians, Lindsey Lohan and the entire cast of Jersey Shore.

If you come up with something, give me a holler.

***


Guy Bergstrom is a reformed journalist who now works as a speechwriter. He’s represented by literary agent Jill Marr. You can reach him on Twitter @speechwriterguy, on his blog www.redpenofdoom.com, or send secret emails to guybergstrom@gmail.com.

16 replies
  1. Clare Davidson
    Clare Davidson says:

    In the UK, you can’t get a C grade in the exams kids take at 16, unless you show you can use a range of punctuation and yes, this sadly includes the semi colon. To be fair, they are useful in complicated lists. As a teacher, I used to have a cheat for the semi colon: stick it in instead of ‘but’. It ticks the exam boxes and doesn’t bore the kids with the technical details of how/why to use it. The problem is, if we’re forced to teach kids that the semi colon is necessary to get a C, they’re going to use them forever until someone whacks it out of them (thank you Becky).

    The semi colon has its place and that is squarely in non-fiction writing.

    Amusing post 🙂

    Reply
  2. Mary Pax
    Mary Pax says:

    I so agree. I confess to once using them, but then when reading, my brain doesn’t know what to do with the semi colon either. I know what it means, but it stops me from reading to ponder what it is the author wants me to do. Which is never a good thing. I believe Mr. Vonnegut had a similar opinion of semi colons.

    Reply
  3. Fina
    Fina says:

    The only time I use the semicolon is in complicated lists (as Clare mentioned). On peer edit and review days, we spend a significant amount of time removing them from students’ writing. However, the ACT enjoys using the semicolon to trick college bound kiddos, so I’m forced to teach usages. This makes me very angry.

    Reply
  4. Ciara Ballintyne
    Ciara Ballintyne says:

    If a semi-colon is used in any of the ways in points 2, then I firmly believe it has been misused (in fiction, at least). These may be appropriate for technical works, but not fiction. The correct fictional use has not been listed, which is to indicate two complete sentences which are more closely related than a period indicates. I don’t think this is indecisive – it’s a shade of meaning, akin to but also dissimilar to some of those suggested for new punctuation marks. Even when I was a teenager and had zero grammatical training I implicitly understood this connection when reading fiction containing semi-colons.

    The new punctuation marks are amusing, and might be useful for facebook and other online communications, but in my opinion would be as inappropriate in a work of fiction as OMG. Any writer who needs a punctuation mark to indicate sarcasm isn’t doing their job correctly.

    Incidentally, there is also a case for getting rid of the em dash, so it seems there are two mutually exclusive and entirely opposed camps on this one.

    Reply
    • Rebecca T. Dickson
      Rebecca T. Dickson says:

      Of course, you’re correct, Ciara. The semicolon has a use. I just don’t like it. Decades of correcting its misuse are the likely culprit. Meantime, this post had me in hysterics. New punctuation? Awesomely funny.

      Reply
  5. Cab
    Cab says:

    Again, my colon was blasted in a motorcycle accident. I just have a “semi” one now. Trash the literary one but leave mine. I need it.

    “Some writers never grow out of this phase. And they use semicolons as a tool to make the simple complicated and the complicated impossible.”

    So, if I can accomplish that without a semicolon, am I gifted?

    Thanks for the bellylaughs, Guy.

    Reply
  6. Mark
    Mark says:

    Semi-colons don’t bother me like the misuse of the comma, so I guess I’m in a different hater camp. If your sole purpose for using a comma is to pause, you are probably using it wrong.

    However, back to the semi-colon. If you don’t know how to use it, don’t. I only have a vague understanding (as Ciara mentioned), so I’ve used it on occasion … but otherwise rarely.

    If your list is that complicated that you need a semi-colon, perhaps you should redo your list. The only exception is in church when you are listing various verses. (ex: Matthew 1:1,2; Mark 1:1)

    Reply
  7. Wildrider51
    Wildrider51 says:

    I see where you’re coming from, but the only places I REALLY use the semicolon are in lists where there are commas (or other punctuation) in the list items (say you’re writing out a list of books and include “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret”–which would come out as several titles rather than just one without the handy semicolon), OR when you’re connecting two sentence fragments into a single sentence with the use of “however.” Say, “You have a strong point; however, I have these examples.”

    But I suppose one could say that short sentences are A-Okay.

    As is writing “a lot” as one word. Which is one of my writing pet peeves.

    Reply
    • deathtap
      deathtap says:

      The semicolon isn’t romantic. It’s a player. It leads you on, never fully committing to anything, continuously avoiding the natural conclusion and confusing you until it is fully satisfied that it’s mulched your brain enough to make you believe that whatever it’s saying is clever and unique.

      It’s not romantic. It’s an abuser. It uses you, as a reader. It makes you feel incompetent. It makes you feel small and insignificant.

      End abuse. End semicolons.

      Reply

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