In Kurt Vonnegut’s 2005 essay collection A Man Without a Country, he includes the following message on punctuation:
Here is a lesson in creative writing.
First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Does Vonnegut actually hate semicolons? If we count all the punctuation marks in all his books, does he use them less than other authors?
Within the context of his essay, it's unclear how serious Vonnegut is. Besides the fact that his attention-grabbing “transvestite hermaphrodite” insult does not hold up well in 2017, he also follows up “Do not use semicolons” with the following:
And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I’m kidding.
For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I’m kidding.
We are about to be attacked by Al Qaeda. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away. I’m kidding.
So is Vonnegut kidding about semicolons, too?
I believe that, on the whole, Vonnegut is serious in his distaste for semicolons. It fits with his general advice to write in a simple manner. But more importantly, Vonnegut’s antipathy for semicolons is easy to see in the data. His actions speak louder than words, even if in this case by “actions” I mean “words in his novels” and by “words” I mean “advice.” In my book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, I argue we can often learn about the most-read authors in a new way simply by taking an objective approach.
Vonnegut averages less than 30 semicolons per novel. That’s about one every 10 pages. To be precise, for every 100,000 words Vonnegut writes, he used 41 semicolons.
There are a handful of authors who use fewer semicolons than Vonnegut does. R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, the classic horror series for children, has one semicolon per every 200,000 words. E.L. James used semicolons in her Fifty Shades trilogy less often than Vonnegut did in his books. And though Cormac McCarthy used 42 semicolons in his first book, The Orchard Keeper, he has used just a single semicolon in his nine novels since.
Outside of a few exceptions, most comparable authors use semicolons at double, quadruple, or even octuple the rate as Vonnegut. Below is an (arbitrary) sampling of 25 authors. Some are modern, and some are old. Some are literary, and some are mass-market. The majority of writers have shown through their own writing they disagree with the boldness of Vonnegut’s opinion.
You probably notice the older authors I’ve selected use far more than modern authors. Google Books Ngram Viewer, which includes novels, nonfiction, and even scientific literature, hows that semicolon use has dropped by about 70 percent from 1800 to 2000. The change over time may explain the discrepancy between Vonnegut and Twain, but it doesn’t explain the gap between Vonnegut and his more modern peers.
When comparing recent authors in the graph above, there appears to be a gap. Authors revered for being literary (or ones that others call pretentious) have high semicolon use. Salman Rushdie, John Updike, and Donna Tartt all use over 300 semicolons per 100,000 words. Authors who are hugely popular with the masses (or ones that others call mass-market drivel) have low semicolon use. E.L. James, David Baldacci, and James Patterson all use under 75 semicolons per 100,000 words.
Vonnegut claimed that all semicolons accomplish is show the author “has been to college.” How much more popular, if at all, is semicolon use in literary writing compared to writing for the masses?
For the purposes of this article, I decided to take a quick approach that is slightly less anecdotal than just glossing over the authors above. I created two samples. The first was all 36 Pulitzer Prize winners published between 1980 and 2016. (This is 36 books instead of 37 because there was no winner in 2012.) I then looked at the Publisher’s Weekly best-selling novel of the year from 1980 to 2016. (This too was 36 books as I removed Diary of a Wimpy Kid since its only intended audience is young children.)
These are small samples, with some repeat authors, but the results are still clear. The Pulitzer Prize–winning books use a median of 129 semicolons per 100,000 words. The best-selling novels use a median of 86 semicolons per 100,000 words.
The 50 percent difference between the two samples may not be surprising, but I think they echo Vonnegut’s point. The most accessible writers often do not use many semicolons. If you are writing with simple sentence structure, you don’t need them.
While semicolons are more present in the Pulitzer winners on the whole, it's not a necessary condition to have them to appeal to literary circles. Some writers, like Larry McMurtry, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove had almost 650 semicolons per 100,000 words, choose to use them often; others, like Cormac McCarthy, who won a Pulitzer for The Road without using a single semicolon, choose to follow Vonnegut's advice and avoid them.