After my reader reviewed the third draft of my book, the first thing she told me was that I needed to get rid of all those semi-colons. Editors trip on semi-colons. I wasn’t going to argue with her. She has edited 35 published books, and her own book is used by the Harvard Graduate School of Business. She knows exactly how many semi-colons are in her book. Three, maybe? I, on the other hand, might have three semi-colons in one paragraph.
The rules haven’t changed. Chicago, MLA and AP all say exactly what I was taught in the 50s. But editors don’t like them, so writers need to write sentences that avoid the necessity of semi-colons. Simple sentences whenever possible. If you have to have a compound or complex sentence, try to avoid commas within each clause—use dashes instead. But only one pair of dashes per paragraph. Do a Google search on semi-colons. You will get dozens, perhaps 100s, of hits. Even the New York Times has run a story about the unloved semi-colon.
I personally am very fond of semi-colons. In long, complex sentences—which Baylor English professors loved—the semi-colon keeps order. A semi-colon between two short, simple, independent clauses is more elegant and exact than either two short sentences or the conjuction and. It functions rather like a fulcrum. A comma is to a semi-colon is to a period like a quarter-note is to a half-note is to a whole note. It denotes the length of the pause, the degree of the break in thought when reading.
I have scoured my manuscript for semi-colons and eradicated as many as I can. Too many remain, left for an editor to delete. Now, when I read books by famous authors, I find myself watching for semi-colons. “Aha! David Brooks uses semi-colons!”
Surely, there are more important things in life—in my life—to think about and argue over.
I write about writers and writing on Wednesdays.
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