For Those Who Love Semicolons

By Barnard Law Collier

I select the semicolon as the mark of punctuation that is so elegant and cool it causes comma slobs acute distress. The semicolon knows this and wryly winks at the idea. 😉

If you are in league with semicolons, your understanding of cause and effect, and the duration in between, may suffuse your copy with semicolons. You can wallow in the mark’s theatrical expressiveness; you can imagine some of the offbeat ideas a semicolon can induce; you can get lost in the balletic way semicolons mix and mingle;

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Many fine writers are bigoted about the semicolon and some demand a boycott of its form and uses.  From a brilliant Wikipedia entry about semicolons that is in itself a paean and a tribute to the mark:

“Some authors have spurned the semicolon throughout their works. Lynne Truss stated that “Samuel Beckett spliced his way merrily through such novels as Molloy and Malone Dies, thumbing his nose at the semicolon all the way,” “James Joyce preferred the colon, as he thought it was more authentically classical; P. G. Wodehouse did an effortlessly marvelous job without it; George Orwell tried to avoid the semicolon completely in Coming Up for Air, (1939);” “Martin Amis included just one semicolon in Money (1984);” and “Umberto Eco was congratulated by an academic reader for using no semicolons in The Name of the Rose (1983).”[10] In response to Truss, Ben MacIntyre, columnist in The Times (London), wrote: “Americans have long regarded the semi-colon with suspicion, as a genteel, self-conscious, neither-one-thing-nor-the other sort of punctuation mark, with neither the butchness of a full colon nor the flighty promiscuity of the comma. Hemingway and Chandler and Stephen King wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with a semi-colon (though Truman Capote might). Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don’t use semi-colons.”[11] In A Man Without a CountryKurt Vonnegut writes that semicolons are “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Nonetheless, the semicolon will willingly serve as a writer’s loyal and constant butler; a helper who neatly sets a story’s long dinner table with individual places in a singular setting; knives neatly placed and shining clean; forks with spotless tines; large, soft napkins; crystal sparkling; all laid out by a writer’s assistant; all the while being unfairly maligned as “middle class” and despite its effervescent and uncanny powers.

Given a chance, the semicolon can turn certain word strings from prose into poetry; from short beats to slightly pregnant pauses; from wavy even flow to easy counterpoint.

There is a New York Times story about semicolons that will tell you all you may wish to know about the love/hate relationships of writers who uses the semicolon to stimulate punctuation fantasies.

It’s a bit creepy to love a punctuation mark? But for punctuation folk it’s worth a read.


According to Wiki, Project Semicolon is the name of a faith-based anti-suicide initiative (since the semicolon continues a sentence rather than ending it) which has led to the punctuation mark becoming a symbolic and popular tattoo.
Barney Collier describes himself as cultural anthropologist, writer, former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, and publisher.


  1. Joseph McClain says

    Hemingway used semicolons, but for some reason everyone is willing to believe he didn’t. I paste from the third paragraph of “The Sun Also Rises:”

    He was married five years, had three children, lost most of the fifty
    thousand dollars his father left him, the balance of the estate having
    gone to his mother, hardened into a rather unattractive mould under
    domestic unhappiness with a rich wife; and just when he had made up his
    mind to leave his wife she left him and went off with a miniature-painter.

    Note the sentence structure, as well.

    Hemingway even uses semicolons where other writers would not use semicolons. Ibid:

    “I feel like hell.”

    “Have another?”

    “It won’t do any good.”

    “Try it. You can’t tell; maybe this is the one that gets it. Hey, waiter! Another absinthe for this señor!”


    Neat note. Mr. McClain sure knows his Hemingway!!!!

    I’m so glad to know that after all Papa may not have minded dying in a ditch with my favorite punctuation mark

    • Joseph McClain says

      Thanks! I’m a science writer at William & Mary and a semicolon man myself.

      For lagniappe, here is another sentence from later in Hemingway’s career. Even with two semicolons riding in the car with a rifle and some whiskey, Papa avoided the ditch.

      So now, going along the sandy track of the road in the car, the lights picking out the eyes of night birds that squatted close on the sand until the bulk of the car was on them and they rose in soft panic; passing the fires of the travellers that all moved to the westward by day along this road, abandoning the famine country that was ahead of us; me sitting, the butt of my rifle on my foot, the barrel in the crook of my left arm, a flask of whisky between my knees, pouring the whisky into a tin cup and passing it over my shoulder in the dark for M’Cola to pour water into it from the canteen, drinking this, the first one of the day, the finest one there is, and looking at the thick bush we passed in the dark, feeling the cool wind of the night and smelling the good smell of Africa, I was altogether happy.

      NB: 163 words in that sentence.

  3. Where did we get the Idea that Stephen King doesn’t like semicolons? I read his book On Writing and can’t remember any diatribe against the semicolon quite like he railed against adverbs in dialogue. Does anyone have a source to this claim?

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