Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Semi-colonic Irrigation

It’s been a while since I’ve raged about punctuation.  But there’s one insidiously creeping piece of it that needs purging at hashtag inducing levels. It’s time to flush it out, self consciously look the other way while it races to the waste pipe and clean up your diet so it never builds up again.

The semi-colon.

I understand how it creeps in. Computer keyboards are set up in such a way that it’s easier to press the semi-colon than the L or : . Microsoft Office dictates that you  insert it at almost any point a full stop would do the job. Then there are articles in The Oatmeal that try to convince people it’s OK. No-one wants to disagree with The Oatmeal.

The big clue to what’s wrong with it lies in the name. SEMI.

Semi means half – half as much, half as good, half as strong.

Semi means less,  partial, somewhat. That colleague or friend’s partner who you can only describe as nice or pleasant but you’d rather not spend any time with one to one. Semi-colons are weak colons in sentences that just can’t hold their shit together.

Semi-colons stand in where writers lack the courage to place full stops. Like computer chips, SIM cards and nuclear fusion, full stops are  tiny but potent. Instead of the courage and boldness of letting sentences state a view in powerful, concentrated blocks, writers let them bleed into the surrounding sentences.

Semi-colons hover in a limbo like insecure, overdressed commas. Long sentences with clauses separated by endless commas aren’t good either. Then the comma (or quarter colon) is weak, fearful of interrupting, trying to be unobtrusive. It’s not fooling anyone to add a dot to increase a comma’s impact. Commit to your sentences and end them when they need it. With a full stop.

When has it ever been better to be semi anything?

Who ever wanted to be in a semi-circle of trust or friends?

A semi-detached house – far less desirable than a detached property.

A semi-final – not as exciting or as important as the final.

And then there’s the schoolyard slang of semi meaning a  semi-erection. It’s just not going to get the job done.

So, dear semi-colon fans, you run the risk that I end up semi-liking you. If that’s OK, sprinkle them like salt as if they give flavour to your sentences and carry on. Otherwise, purge them from everywhere but lists where they belong.

And ; )

I can always handle a bit of 😉



4 comments on “Semi-colonic Irrigation

  1. eflfocus
    March 17, 2014

    “When has it ever been better to be semi anything?” That statement might actually convince my students. Then we can stop talking grammar and start focusing on clarity.

    • Nicola
      March 18, 2014

      Oh yes. I thought so in this post! The grammar of grammar and less sillily (?) in the first half of this one before it ascended into a rant about hashtags – which I still cleave to!

  2. Alex Owen-Hill
    March 17, 2014

    I see you are a paid member of ISMS (the Intransigent Semi-colon Maligners Society)
    I really don’t get fundamentalist semi-colon bashing. It’s the same as fundamentalist anything really.. like the use of the word “said”. One minute someone makes the perfectly reasonable suggestion that maybe using too many flowery synonyms for “said” might detract from the dialogue… then before you know it there becomes this unwritten law which people will defend to the death which says that “anything but the use of ‘said’ is an abomination of the language” (!)
    The semi-colon has its uses, just as anything else. Sure, indiscriminate use is not great, but then indiscriminate use of anything is not great. The indiscriminate use of an umbrella, for example, would quickly start to draw complaints.

    • Nicola
      March 18, 2014

      You’re the voice of reason to my rant Alex ;).

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This entry was posted on March 17, 2014 by in Thoughts, Writing and tagged .
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