The debate over semicolon use
Do Medium writers use semicolons?
After I got this crazy idea that I wanted to write a piece about semicolons, (what kind of word-nerd does that, anyway?) I decided to compile some quick research on semicolon use among Medium writers.
I chose eight Medium writers that I follow and found an article from each one that had over 1000 claps. I cut and pasted each article into a Word document, and then performed a “find” function for semicolons. Do you know what I found?
In the eight pieces I examined, one each by Tim Denning, Brian Rowe, Zulie Rane, Shaunta Grimes, Danny Forest, Ayodeji Awosika, Sean Kernan, and Kay Bolden, there were TWO instances. One was when @Ayodeji Awosika quotes Steven Covey:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” — Stephen Covey
In 44 minutes of reading time by successful writers on Medium, I found only ONE original instance of a semicolon. Thank you, Kay Bolden, for showing us how to do it in your article, “Why I’m Taking a Gap Year at Age 60.” The use of the semicolon in the following paragraph is a beautiful connection and adds an unexpected grace note to the writing:
The problem with being in the wrong life is that the only way to survive is to detach yourself. You must stand behind the door and wait. You can’t just lie about how you feel and what you want; you also have to absorb the lie into your skin. You have to bolt it down with anchors and sink it, irretrievably, into your little grey cells.
Antiquated or sophisticated?
The lack of a semicolon in the pieces I looked at doesn’t imply any criticism or negativity. It’s just an observation of the commonality of use in this modern, Medium-world.
Maybe Kay Bolden is more familiar with semicolons than the other authors. I’m older than she is, and I was taught that semicolons were an important element of a well-rounded writer.
Maybe younger writers think of semicolons as old-fashioned or unnecessary. Maybe the other seven writers I looked at DO use semicolons in their writing but because of the minuscule size of my sample, I didn’t spot it.
Perhaps semicolons are no longer used at all and are in danger of extinction as older writers die out. Are they even taught anymore, or are they going the way of the apostrophe, something seen as too complicated, too distracting, and unnecessary?
Because of the brevity and clarity needed in copywriting, the semicolon isn’t an essential tool. But it’s a specialized instrument, a light-saber for word-warriors in essays, articles, story-telling, books, and letters.
Why use a semicolon?
It took several hundred years for the semicolon to be delineated. It performs three functions:
It connects two independent clauses that are related in meaning.
It separates items in a long, complex series to make it easier for the reader to understand.
It is used in a series that includes a multitude of commas: a series involving cities, states, or dates.
The third purpose is easiest of all to discern
“The train stopped at three locations on the trip: Washington, D.C.; Albany, NY; Portland, ME.” The semicolon keeps the commas separating the city and state names from running together with the different destinations.
The second purpose of the semicolon is applied to long, complex items in a series
“The three friends had different ideas of having fun: Mary wanted to go swimming; Gladys wanted to go shopping; Sarah wanted to go clubbing.” Here, the semicolons separate items in a complex series. Using a semicolon shows that all three ideas are related to each other. Using periods would make the sentences abrupt and choppy.
The best example of separating complex items in a series comes from “How to Use Semicolons in Fiction.”
“The most effective way to kill a vampire is by drenching them in holy water, water infused with garlic or petrol (and setting them alight); piercing their heart with a wooden stake made of oak, beech or yew; exposing them to sunlight, fire or holy images; or starving them of blood until they turn to dust.”
The first purpose of a semicolon is the one that stirs the controversy.
The semicolon is a mongrel matchmaker, connecting two ideas. The “hook-up” of independent sentences or free-standing phrases attracted to each other by hidden meaning produces “pregnant pauses,” as in this sentence from The Great Gatsby:
“A pause; it ended horribly.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Bestselling authors use semicolons
Some people use them more than others.
In a New Yorker essay, Mary Norris suggests that semicolons are much more popular with British writers than American ones.
Through data analysis, In his book, Nabakov’s Favorite Color is Mauve, Ben Blatt discovers that authors from the previous century use semicolons more often than modern authors.
Even though many people criticize the semicolon, bestselling authors use them.
Should YOU use a semicolon?
Semicolon use is a matter of acceptance, style, purpose, training, and audience. Be your own judge.
If you’re looking for hard-hitting modern copywriting that cuts clutter in favor of easy-to-scan and quick-to-digest content, the semicolon isn’t for you.
But if you like to have options for accessorizing your language, don’t rule out the maybe-antiquated-but-definitely-sophisticated semicolon. If it‘s useful to David Baldacci, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, and Jane Austen, I’m willing to consider it, too.