“Here is a lesson in creative writing,” Kurt Vonnegut writes in his book of essays titled “A Man Without a Country.” “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Vonnegut is a zany writer with an equally zany sense of humor. Can we take him 100 percent seriously here? Maybe not. But should Colorado College students heed his advice? Maybe so. I have never seen as many semicolons as I have since starting school here. The semicolon is a sort of an invasive species at CC. They’re present in almost every Catalyst article I read. This article will remain bare of them, even if only to prevent me from falling into the grasp of hypocrisy. They’re present in every analytical or research essay I’ve read for class. And woe is the rare paper that does forego semicolons! Be wary of handing said paper to a peer-editor, for he or she will decimate your small but healthy population of periods and replace them with semicolons. I can’t even say that I wouldn’t toss in some semicolons for good measure if you were to hand me a paper to peer-edit—and I’m the one arguing against them. The overuse of the semicolon is endemic. So, I appeal to both myself and my peers when I say that we all need to cut down on our use of the semicolon. As Vonnegut might say, “We get it! You’ve been to college!”
There is nothing innately wrong with the semicolon. It links two independent clauses without the need for a coordinating conjunction in the same way that a period does. However, the choice to use a semicolon over a period carries with it some level of nuance. A period chooses to close a thought and begin a new one with the following independent clause. A semicolon halts the structure more so than a coordinating conjunction might, but not so much as a period does. It creates a certain connective tissue between the two clauses. What I’m trying to say is that, yes, there is certainly a time and a place for the semicolon. I am of the belief, however, that CC students use them frequently without any consideration for these nuances. And to do so is the equivalent of using fancy vocabulary for the sake of using fancy vocabulary. We all know someone who does it, and if you’re not annoyed by that kind of person, you might be one of them.
The fact is that semicolons are no more complex than other “low-brow” punctuation, but one’s ability to use them is dependent on one’s exposure to education. In a nutshell, if you’ve never been taught how to use a semicolon, you won’t. To throw semicolons haphazardly into one’s writing is far from a declaration of taste and erudition. Rather, it’s a gimmicky way to boast one’s access to education, which is frequently a matter of opportunity rather than merit. In my recent Introduction to Poetry class, my professor even warned us against excessive semicolon use. He’s had more education than all of us, but he’s not trying to expose his learnedness through snooty punctuation. On the other end of the spectrum, I recall one of my English teachers from my high school who adored semicolons. She also had a penchant for designer brands that had her looking as if she had just rolled in a large pile of loose designer logos that wound up stuck generously to her various articles of clothing. Now, an expensive piece of apparel or a tasteful semicolon can be quite a classy statement, but my teacher had apparently not quite mastered the art of subtlety in either of these realms.
We are told that every word that a writer chooses should be deliberate and specific, so why not preach the same for punctuation? The semicolon has its niche, so use it when it is necessary, but not for more. It is a convenient tool for separating two independent clauses, which are in some way complementary or related; for creating lists, ones that are complex and may not be clear without the semicolons; and hopefully not solely for the sake of proving your grammar smarts.