What about semicolons?

Don't even think about it.

Okay, first off, I’m toying with the idea of just telling you to expunge this poseur punctuation mark like a common plantar wart. In my opinion, semicolons are the skin virus of writing. They’re not only archaic, but also pretentious. So if I were your editor, I would excise every single pompous little pause mark you threw in there. But I know you won’t let me do that. So I’m going to tell you exactly how to use them.

It’s simple: semi-colons break up two independent clauses, like so:

I believe that semicolons suck; many writers disagree.

See that? Two complete sentences that some writers, for whatever convoluted reason, insist on duct-taping together with a semicolon. But what’s worse is when they’re used incorrectly, like to break up an independent and dependent clause, like this:

Usage of semicolons should be punishable by tarring and feathering; and I hate them.

In past Conans, I’ve mentioned that usage of certain elements of speech can be determined by how they sound. This is not one of them. Some people are tone-deaf, and in language, plenty of people are punctuation-deaf too. So don’t rely on your ear. Folks often think that a long pause deserves a semicolon. Remember: sometimes a long pause only indicates a coughing fit or an attack of narcolepsy, not grounds for a semicolon. In any case, give us all a break and make that long pause into the end of a sentence. Puh-leeze.

Listen. There are hard-and-fast rules when it comes to commas and semicolons. Get to know them. Don’t wing it. Take 15 minutes to learn where they go.  Pull out that copy of Strunk & White’s I’ve been nagging you to buy. What? You haven’t bought it yet? Go out right now and get it.

I’ll wait.


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