Semicolon: Not Only for Highfalutin Snobs but Also for Clarity, Prosody

A biography on semicolon delves into semicolon’s origin, evolution, and usage

Kovuuri G. Reddy
9 min readAug 25, 2020

In the usage of punctuation marks in composing text, few of them are suffice to express a thought or an idea: comma, dash and full stop (period). Apostrophe, colon, ellipsis, exclamation mark, hyphen, question mark, and brackets supplement and complement the clarity of thought or idea in words.

What about semicolon? One can avoid semicolon for there is a dash and a conjunction, which could almost do the job of the semicolon. However, its deployment for separating independent clauses in a sentence remains robust in its history of more than 500 years.

The King’s English:

If someone is unware of the functions of semicolon, one may shun it. That is what H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler observe in The King’s English: “Just as the tiro will be safer if he avoids commas before independent sentences, so he will generally be wise not to use a semicolon before a mere independent member.”

The Fowler brothers teased out the misplaced semicolon in the literature of Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), the Noble Prize Winner for literature. In The King’s English, they mention that sentence: “One view called me to another; one hill to its fellow, half across the country, and since I could answer at no more trouble than the snapping forward of a lever, I let the country flow under my wheels.” Fowlers observe that in that sentence ‘the second comma and the semicolon clearly ought to change places’. That sentence is the opening sentence of Rudyard Kipling’s short story They.


Tiro, the alternative spelling is tyro, is a beginner in learning something. When it comes to the usage of semicolon, there would be many tiros: accomplished or unaccomplished, published or unpublished. The usage of semicolon is wrought with trepidation for conscientious users of punctuation.

Semicolon has its functionality and using it is a sign of skill. Those who use semicolons are not only elitists, highfalutin snobs and showing off that s/he has been to a college but a demonstration of meticulousness in composing text! Or, attempting to give a prosodic effect to the sentence.


Punctuation marks are indispensable in expressing a complete thought or idea in words: writing, publishing, and printing. The rich, subtle, and infinitely varied rhythms; simple and complex descriptions; and aspects of prosody are evoked among words with punctuation in text.

The diagnosis of the usage of punctuation marks is an ongoing one; and punctuation has emerged as a distinct part of language. Every book on grammar touches upon punctuation, and there are exclusive books on it.

There are rules in the usage of punctuation points and some rules could be overlooked for they are only conventions, a matter of one’s taste or style. Rules, conventions, taste and judgment guide a writer in using punctuation. Now there are studies and books on each punctuation mark.

Biography of semicolon:

A book on semicolon charts its origin and journey from the fifteenth century into the twenty-first. Semicolon: How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and Maybe Even Change Your Life is the title of a book written by Cecilia Watson. The unwieldy subtitle may appear hyperbolic but there is the word ‘Maybe’. Semicolon is an unwieldy punctuation mark unless mastered. The author explains: “The semicolon is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.”

Semicolon is misunderstood, misused, and therefore shunned. The usage of semicolons in composition involves greater degree of judgment than any other punctuation mark. However, Cecilia Watson’s book will help a reader to get a grip over semicolon and its evolution into the midst of words in writing.

Structure of semicolon:

Semicolon is a combination of comma and dot: dot balanced over a comma, or a comma underneath a dot; or, a dot-and-curve with space in between.

Semicolon is placed on the same level as the words in the text. In the words of Cecilia Watson ‘it is a comma-half tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb through high above it’.

The functions of semicolon:

Semicolon indicates a pause, a pause that is somewhere between a comma and a full stop (period), and there are two key functions.

One, a semicolon is placed in enumeration of particulars when the items in a list are lengthy and have their own internal punctuation.

Two, a semicolon is used to separate main clauses in a sentence when they are grammatically complete sentences, and when separating two independent or coordinate clauses to form a compound sentence.

The author explains the dilemma in using the semicolon to separate independent and dependent clauses: “Nowadays all guides advise against using a semicolon to link together an independent and a dependent clause. In other words, the parts of sentence separated by a semicolon must be able to stand on their own grammatically, so that they can be complete sentences if they wanted. But most nineteenth-century grammarians considered it perfectly acceptable to link together an independent and dependent clause using a semicolon. If the author thought it sounded right, no need to meddle. As the grammarians’ push towards logic, natural science, and induction continued, however, punctuation became decoupled from prosody and personal preference.”

The question arises in the user, whose advice to take? Shun it, and use a punctuation mark that is closer to semicolon such as the dash, or use a word of conjunction in a sentence? Possibly, and the semicolon is also used to emphasise contrast and incongruity, to heighten an ironical statement or absurdity or contradiction in a statement. For example: ‘George loved his salary; he loathed his job.’

Semicolon: Creates music, paints picture, conjures emotions

Semicolon only cannot make your language to do what you want it do but knowing the usage of semicolon will help you to infuse clarity and creativity to your expressions. That is what Cecilia Watson’s book highlights.

Knowing a set of rules in a branch of knowledge is an enriching experience. Is it fun to learn about a minutest aspect of grammar? The author answers, “I wouldn’t deny that there’s a joy in knowing a set of grammar rules; there is always joy in mastery of some branch of knowledge. But there is much more joy in becoming a reader who can understand and explain how it is that a punctuation mark can create meaning in language that goes beyond just delineating the logical structure of a sentence. Great punctuation can create music, paint a picture, or conjure emotions.”

The usage of semicolons are few, but there are ways to use semicolons according to one’s taste, or style. In this aspect it is useful to know the rules and conventions related to semicolon. Cecilia Watson’s book helps to discover the ways to infuse semicolons in one’s text in correct and creative ways.

Semicolon: Most feared punctuation mark

Semicolons caused consternation to some accomplished writers for it is not an easy punctuation mark to sprinkle in text among others. In addition, does semicolons represent anything or nothing?

Cecilia Watson points out to the remark made by Kurt Vonnegut on semicolon: ‘All they do is to show you’ve been to college’!

Is semicolon the most feared punctuation mark on earth? The author identifies, “One punctuation mark encapsulates this thorny issue more clearly than any other: the semicolon. Hated by Stephen King, Hemingway, Vonnegut and Orwell, and loved by Herman Melville, Henry James and Rebecca Solnit, it is the most divisive punctuation mark in the English language, and many are too scared to go near it. But why? And when is it effective? Have we been misusing it? Should we even care?”

The author takes the reader on journey into the history of the semicolon and explores the remarkable power it can wield. She raises the elasticity and pedantry that governs rules related to semicolon in punctuation and generally about English language. How do we learn to use English in a way that sticks better and works better than an abstracted list of memorized rules? How do we learn to develop a writing style that’s recognizable, and at the same time master the ability to be flexible with that style as the occasion requires? And what does all this have to do with the semicolon? Is semicolon so hateful?

Not really.

Birth of semicolon:

Like many aspects of language are traced to Latin and Greek literature, the birth of semicolon is identified to Italian humanists who invented the semicolon in the fifteenth century. Aldus Manutius paired up the comma and colon to create the semicolon, and Manutius the printer and publisher used it in De Aetna by Pietro Bembo. Cecilia Watson writes the hybrid mark was cut for this text by Bolognese type designer Francesco Griffo. The semicolon was sprinkled in De Aetna conspiring with colons, commas, and parentheses to aid the readers. She elaborates, “The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its forms, which combines both of those marks.”

Interestingly, the semicolon retains its function to this day as pause that is somewhere between a comma and full stop (period), and as an aid to clarity in the midst of words. It is certainly not a pretensions mark used to gloss over an imprecise thought.

Cecilia Watson’s Book:

Some punctuation marks faltered and fizzled and faded away such as punctus percontativus, which was a rhetorical question mark, a mirror-image version of the question mark. Why did the semicolon survive and thrive when other marks did not?

The book charts the chronology of semicolon, its transformation, the events related to it and observations made by other writers, how it symbolises and triggers ideas and emotions that transcend itself, who advocated what on semicolon and much else.

The book makes a case for the semicolon and punctuation to support a ‘richer way of learning, teaching, using, and loving language’.

The author points out the deployment of semicolons in Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. She writes, “As King was waiting, frustrated, for change, so must the reader wait a full page, held in suspension by those semicolons, while Kings lists agony after agony, indignity after indignity, before he alights on his final clause, delivered emphatically with an em dash. This is mimesis at its finest. And this experience of waiting could be treated only with semicolons, which are doing much more here than just separating items in a list or just putting some distance between independent clauses. The semicolon is used to open a window on the lived experience of blacks in America in 1963.” The author quotes a sentence from that letter in the book which has a series of semicolons, and the effect of semicolons is indisputable: ‘mimesis at its finest’

Semicolon’s critics and pedants:

The book brings to the attention of the reader what Irvine Welsh said about the punctuation mark: “I’ve no feelings about it — it’s just there. People actually get worked up about that kind of thing, do they? I don’t fucking believe it. They should get a fucking life or a proper job. They’ve got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense”. Irvine Welsh is the author of Trainspotting and his work is remarked to have profanity-laced Scots English. Cecilia Watson succinctly adds to his acidic remarks on semicolon: “Welsh is wrong that thinking about punctuation is ‘nonsense’, but of course he might nonetheless be right that I need to get a fucking life and a proper job.”

Cecilia Watson has a PhD in Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, University of Chicago and held academic positions at various educational institutions in the USA. In Semicolon: How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and Maybe Even Change Your Life, the author shows the utility of semicolon in paragraph-long sentences, how it can highlight and amplify parallel structure in a sentence, and how punctuation helps to run or hold an expression (the effect can be thrilling), how steadiness could be achieved, and to ‘indicate a moment of transition between restraint and licence to run and that moment is made and marked by the semicolon’.

Semicolon: Endangered?

Semicolon gives clarity, precision, and penetrating insights into a compound sentences or sentences with clauses, but the semicolon is endangered for in its place there is also a dash. The author observes that nowadays the dash is the mark of first resort and is taking the place of commas, colons, semicolons, and full stops. She writes, “We now live in the Era of the Dash. Dashes are dashed off right and left by millions of thumbs sweeping fleetly across millions of mobile phones.”

Dashes and conjunctions could endanger the semicolon but ‘semicoloned sentences’ cannot be dashed off for it is a ‘stop without stopping completely’.



Kovuuri G. Reddy

Independent journalist; short, short story writer; living in Sweden. Worked as a broadcast journalist and teaching journalsim and media in England and India.