The semicolon is dying a slow death. The blue droopy line in the graph above is from Google Ngram Viewer–a very cool off-shoot of Google Books. Based on the books already digitized, the Ngram Viewer provides a simple service: display the frequency of a word or phrase in a corpus of about 5 million books from 1500 to present. (Also, you can type in multiple phrases and words to see a comparison of usage. My favorite comparison: ketchup v. catsup. Watch this great TED talk about the tool if you are curious to learn more).
But not just for words, the Ngram Viewer can tell us about the usage of the semicolon. From the graph, it’s easy to see that semicolon usage peaked in the late 1700′s and has slowly been declining since then. We do see an uptick again once we hit the 2000′s, but I think this might be from the rise in computer programming languages and books printed about how to write those languages (30/46 languages use the semicolon as part of their syntax).
Still why the decline in usage? What has lead to this drop in its popularity? One culprit is that the semicolon was overused in the past. Authors were giddy with semicolon love and they used it as much as they could. In non-fiction, and even fiction, from the 1700′s and 1800′s, the semicolon seems to be on every page and in every paragraph, like authors needed semicolons like trees need sun. So the decline in usage could be a reaction to its overuse and a trend to a more normalization and balance.
But our work is not yet complete. Will we leave this punctuation to the teens and the programmers? By learning about how to use the semicolon, you can revive this failing punctuation mark and ensure that it isn’t relegated only to winking smiley faces in texts messages and end-of-line markers in computer languages.
HOW TO USE
I. Semicolons connect closely related independent clauses
A semicolon can add needed variety to the structure and rhythm of your sentences. Instead of always combining independent clauses with a comma/conjunction duo, try a semicolon. Make sure that the two independent clauses joined together are closely related. That means, they should be on the same topic, even have the same subject.
Ice cream is a delicious dessert; I can’t eat it every day, though.
A semicolon can be effective in linking two independent ideas that are contrasting or in opposition too.
To err is human; to forgive is divine.
Cookies are good; ice cream is better.
II. Semicolons separate items in a list when the list-items contain commas
Semicolons can fill the role of a comma when items in the list contain commas.
I have lived in Mumbai, India; San Francisco, California; Prague, Austria; and Tokyo, Japan.
Watching Casa de mi Padre made me realize that The Three Amigos, a quirky comedy about silent film actors heading to Mexico to protect a town from bandits, was ahead of its time; that Will Ferrell, although not thought of as a dramatic actor, is dramatic when he wants to be; and that more movies in the U.S. will be made for the rising population of Latinos.
SHOULD YOU USE IT?
John R. Trimble, author of Writing with Style, gives three succinct reasons for using a semicolon:
1. A semicolon adds variety.
Always using conjunctions and commas to join sentences can become boring and repetitive. A semicolon can break up this repetition, can give your reader something different to look at, and can change the rhythm and pace of your sentences.
2. A semicolon allows for compact and concise sentences.
Semicolons allow writers to be efficient with space and to eliminate the need for polysyllabic words, like however, unfortunately, and because, when linking ideas. The sentence is distilled down to its essence with a semicolon.
3. A semicolon allows for unity.
The semicolon can add smooth, clean, quick transitions from one idea to the next. Sometimes a period breaks the action too much and a conjunction-comma pair is too messy and cumbersome. A semicolon can eliminate these problems by linking clauses in an efficient, coherent bundle.
If you need one more reason to consider using the semicolon, head over to The Oatmeal, which has a wonderfully silly, yet informative poster on the semicolon (Click on the image).