Has modern life killed the semicolon?

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June 20 2008 4:51 PM

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Has modern life killed the semicolon?

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1865? But surely that's a century off: Isn't modern life to blame?

Not exactly: From the 1850s onward, it's virtually impossible to find anyone claiming a prevalence of semicolons in writing. We now lived, complained a critic in 1854, in a "fast era" that neglected punctuation; by 1895, the Times took it for granted that "[m]any writers have adopted the plan of punctuating as little as possible." What these writers intuited had an empirical basis: A 1995 study tallying punctuation in period texts found a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7.

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Researcher Paul Bruthiaux notes the steepest semicolon drop-off came in the mid-19th century—a finding that matches the gap between Poe's 1848 complaint and that 1865 "rejection." Technology is a leading suspect in rapid aesthetic shifts, so consider what debuted in the 1850s that might radically change language usage: the telegraph.

Poe's 1848 comment came just three years before the founding of Western Union. The next decade saw lines strung across the country to create what science writer Tom Standage fittingly dubs the "Victorian Internet." And that's precisely when semicolon usage begin to slump.

Perusing telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion. Punctuation was charged at the same rate as words, and their high price—trans-Atlantic cables originally cost a still-shocking $5 per word—meant that short, punchy lines with minimal punctuation were necessary among businessmen and journalists.

By the new century, simplified punctuation migrated into textbooks; one 1903 guide recommended that "Boys and girls ... should as a rule use a period when they are tempted to use a semicolon." When the California State Board of Education adopted this textbook three years later, the mark's capitulation was perhaps inevitable. Harper's could decry the semicolon as "almost forgotten among proofreaders" in a 1924 article titled Our Passion for Haste, and the Atlantic that year could bemoan the "spot plague" of periods. So, too, in 1943, when the Times editorialized against "the war that is being waged in some quarters on the semicolon." Their favored villain was now "the writer of action fiction. ... The semicolon is the enemy of action; it is the agent of reflection and meditation."

The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that "All [semicolons] do is show that you've been to college." New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was "semicolon boy." And though semicolons have occasionally made news—tariff bills have imploded over their misplacement, and a 1927 execution hinged on the interpretation of a semicolon—the last writers to receive much notice for semicolon use have been a New York City Transit employee and the Son of Sam. In 1977 the NYPD speculated that "the killer could be a freelance journalist" because of his "use of a semicolon" in his taunting letters. (Decades later, columnist Jimmy Breslin still marveled that "Berkowitz is the only murderer I ever heard of who knew how to use a semicolon.")

Semicolons do have some genuine shortcomings; Slate's founding editor, Michael Kinsley, once noted to the Financial Times that "[t]he most common abuse of the semicolon, at least in journalism, is to imply a relationship between two statements without having to make clear what that relationship is." All journalists can cop to this: The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.

Yet semicolons serve a unique function, so it's tempting to think that some writers will always cling to them. When grading undergrad final papers recently, I found a near-absence of semicolons, save for one paper with cadenced pauses and carefully cantilevered clauses that gracefully stacked upon one another, Jenga-like, without ever quite toppling. Yet English was not this student's first language.

He was an exchange student—from France.

Paul Collins teaches creative writing at Portland State University, and his latest book is The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Follow him on Twitter.