A client asked me to freshen up a six-year-old article and add some current information. No problem.
But as I read through the original article, there was one thing that stuck out like a jet black hair in a bowl of lobster bisque.
An overabundance of semicolons.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I see a semicolon, I don’t think about the relationship between what came right before and right after the semicolon. I wonder why a semicolon was used in the first place.
This particular content writing assignment inspired me to do some digging, so I Googled “what is a semicolon.”
My first stop was the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which said:
Semicolons help you connect closely related ideas when a style mark stronger than a comma is needed. By using semicolons effectively, you can make your writing sound more sophisticated.
What does a comma have to do with connecting closely related ideas? And do people really associate semicolons with sophistication?
By the way, if you’re relying on any form of punctuation to sound more sophisticated, it’s time to pay closer attention to the words you choose and how you organize your thoughts.
Feeling even less comfortable with semicolons, my journey took me to ChompChomp.com – aka, Grammar Bytes – which offered three appropriate semicolon uses:
Use 1: Connect two related sentences.
Example: Grandma still rides her Harley motorcycle; her toy poodle balances in a basket between the handlebars.
Looks like two sentences to me. Why not just use a period?
Use 2: Team up with a transition—often a conjunctive adverb—to connect two sentences close in meaning.
Example: My father does not approve of his mother cruising around town on a Harley motorcycle; however, Grandma has never cared what anyone thinks.
Am I the only one who sees two sentences again?
Use 3: Avoid confusion when you have complicated lists of items.
Example: On a Harley motorcycle, my grandmother and her poodle have traveled to Anchorage, Alaska; San Francisco, California; and Tijuana, Mexico.
I guess I can buy this to an extent, only because the semicolon actually does something helpful by removing confusion.
If you have a complicated list in which individual list items contain commas, or lists within a list, using a semicolon wouldn’t be tragic. Personally, I still wouldn’t use one.
Grammar Bytes closes by saying:
Limit your use of semicolons; you should not scatter them wantonly throughout your writing. Semicolons are like glasses of champagne; save them for special occasions.
I’d rather save semicolons, and the word “wantonly,” for someone else to use. And I see four sentences.
Stop three was GrammarBook.com, which said:
It’s no accident that a semicolon is a period atop a comma. Like commas, semicolons indicate an audible pause—slightly longer than a comma’s, but short of a period’s full stop.
Finally, an explanation in layman’s terms that not only explains the structure of the mark, but what the mark should indicate to the reader!
Now it makes sense. Sort of. In theory.
The examples on this web page are still combinations of two standalone sentences, except for the complicated list.
Why You Will Never, Ever, Ever See Semicolons in My Content
I know what a period means. It tells me to stop for a second, collect myself and absorb what I just read.
I know what a comma means. It tells me to pause, take a breath, and recognize the separation of two pieces of information. It often provides clarification.
I don’t know what the hell to think when I see a semicolon. Apparently, it’s somewhere between a full stop and a pause. An awkward silence that creates more confusion than it removes. A painful hiccup.
If there’s anything I don’t want my writing to be, it’s “in between.” I don’t want to be “semi” anything. This is especially true for blog posts, but it applies to all kinds of marketing content.
When you’re writing, don’t waffle. Make a decision. Come to a full stop, or tap the brakes. Indecisive punctuation is just as bad as indecisive word choices.
If the Goal Is to Write the Way You Talk, What Does a Semicolon Sound Like?
David Ogilvy famously said, “Write the way you talk. Naturally.”
I know what a period sounds like. I know what a comma sounds like. The difference is sometimes subtle, but clear.
I don’t know what a semicolon sounds like. If I want my content to sound like a natural conversation, it makes no sense to use a semicolon.
I can’t. I won’t.
Back when I was writing radio commercial scripts, I could imagine the look on the voice talents’ faces if they encountered a semicolon.
If anything, a semicolon is a license to write a run-on sentence, which sounds awful.
A Semicolon Is Like the Human Appendix. It Serves No Purpose.
I’ve seen no use of a semicolon that makes me say, “Thank goodness for the semicolon. There was no other way to make it work.”
Even a complicated list could be presented as a bullet point list rather than separating each list item with a semicolon. Bullet points are easier on the eyes, too.
Most of the rationale for using a semicolon focuses on establishing a close connection or relationship between two sentences. But can’t you accomplish the same thing by making those sentences a separate paragraph or restructuring the sentences? Do you really want to rely on widely misunderstood punctuation to convey the closeness of your thoughts to your readers?
Before you use a semicolon, ask yourself if the reader will really get what you’re attempting to convey. Ask yourself if there’s a better way.
Hint: There’s always a better way.
For the sake of your readers, and for the sake of clarity, leave the semicolon under your right pinky finger.