Colons and semi-colons

Apparently, there’s debate raging right now on whether we should use colons and semi-colons in writing.

Of course we should use them! When you want the reader to pause longer than they would for a comma, but shorter than they would for a full-stop, you use a colon or a semi-colon. And that’s all there is to it. Bugger the rules of grammar!

And when you want the authorial voice to fade away into silence …

4 responses to this post.

  1. Agreed! I follow no rules at all and just write what sounds good to my ear; and if I want to use semi-colons and dots I will…. ;D


  2. Posted by Maggie on October 10, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    I use semi colons where I could use a full stop where the two parts are closely connected.


  3. As an editor, semi-colons are no mystery. They are easy to use and often essential. But sometimes a period is much better. I sometimes encounter writers who balk at an editor taking on their finely crafted endless stream of commas, but if I can’t find my way from one end of the sentence to another there’s a problem!


  4. Posted by Janet on October 13, 2019 at 8:21 pm

    I’m a copy editor, so I could go on all day about stuff like this. But I will say the formality and style (as opposed to the “correctness”) of one’s writing depends on context. There’s a time for semicolons; there’s a time for not using semicolons, and a time for every purpose for colons under heaven. The evolution of standard English rolls along several tracks–some established by former usage (as in Fowlers and the OED) and others, less resistant, by current usage. For example, some editors (but not most) will use google to determine for themselves whether a word has taken on a new meaning or usage (for example, a noun being used as a verb). Style manuals and grammar handbooks are updated periodically to reflect changes where current preferences reach a state of acceptable usage. This is to say nothing of the differences among the various Englishes–the British use of a semicolon is different from the American rule. In the US, a semicolon is used to separate two phrases that are each complete sentences in themselves and can be separated by a period but are so complementary to each other they more properly belong conjoined. That’s pretty straightforward, but almost no one who isn’t a copy editor knows the rule. Semicolons are therefore most often used–incorrectly per Am Eng–as hard pauses or avoided entirely as hostile bludgeons of elitism.

    So, in an article or paper governed by an expectation that the language will be formal and correct according to an American style manual, semicolons are going to be used a certain way. If the same article is reformatted for a British journal, the British requirements will be applied. The author who declines to use semicolons at all saves an edit. So the move away from nitpicky writing rules makes a piece less-geocentric and more portable. Personally, I like the nitpicky stuff that signals where a piece of writing comes from, but, oh well…

    The other thing, which may be at the heart of the whole thing, is that many people, even very highly educated people, struggle with formal writing. Believe me. I have edited plenty of academics. Others, who are not writing in a context in which formal writing is called for, may not know that correct English is not necessarily formal English and that much that would not be acceptable in a university thesis is perfectly appropriate in most other cases.

    Punctuation especially is a tool for controlling expression. Some things are simply incorrect. For example, “Janet and, her cat sat on a mat” is simply wrong. “Nanette, and her cat, sat on a mat” would in most cases be wrong but could be a deliberate use of commas to bring the cat in incidentally for effect. Much depends on an author’s idiosyncratic use of English to determine whether a comma is right (consistent with how the author uses commas) or wrong (sticking out like a sore thumb). You really just want to get rid of the sore thumbs so that the punctuation becomes invisible, moving the reader through the prose with all its eddies and rapids and wide expanses of still waters. Those who argue for eliminating conventions of expression because they are challenging to deploy are on the losing side of an impossible argument: It is neither desirable nor feasible. Though arguments may rage as to whether the first letter of a sentence following a colon should be capitalized.


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