Halfway to Nowhere
I don’t think the semicolon will still be in common usage a generation from now.
I also think the numbers for tonight’s Powerball drawing will be 1, 6, 8, 35, 37 with Powerball 14.
Laugh it up, you sneering skeptics; at midnight I’ll have $98 million and you’ll have periods over commas.
In all seriousness, it seems–from my desk, at least–that written English is headed in a direction that does not favor the semicolon. Since it first appeared in print (the year 1494, per Lynne Truss), disagreement has persisted about when and why to use it.
Debate is healthy in matters of punctuation, but eventually we reach a break point where everyone throws up their hands and walks away. I think we’re just about there with the semicolon, despite recent helpful but probably too late attempts to clarify it.
In Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss quotes a Cecil Hartley:
The stops point out, with truth, the time of pause
A sentence doth require at ev’ry clause
At ev’ry comma, stop while one you count;
At semicolon, two is the amount;
A colon doth require the time of three;
The period four as learned men agree.
Gendered 19th-century word choice and treacly Britishness aside, I like the idea of comma-semicolon-colon-period tracing a continuum of timed pauses. It’s easy to comprehend, and a good reminder that critical communicative things like pauses, tone, inflection, and even sarcasm are often lost in writing and we need to use every tool at our disposal to convey them accurately.
But the semicolon has none of the job security the other three have. The comma is friendly and versatile. The colon has, if nothing else, list introductions locked down. The period will survive nuclear war.
The semicolon not only must defend its territory from “long” commas and “short” colons (thinking of pause times), but also from the em dash which now seems preferred in less-than-formal writing to indicate that two-count.
And here’s the heart of it: The internet, the dominant publishing medium of today and tomorrow, favors less-than-formal writing. That’s just a matter of numbers, which I wish I could cite exactly, viz. how many words are published online every day versus how many are printed every day.
My guess is that the em dash is going to gradually kill the semicolon. Academics and other ultra-formal writers will hang on to the bitter end, and ; may retain some quaint/retro appeal like handwritten letters have, but as far as common usage in thirty years?
Check the punctuation lost and found, maybe it’s under the irony mark.
P.S. Here’s a good article about why I may be wrong here.
April 11, 2012