Semicolon Disease

Punctuation is on my mind lately. In particular, the overused and misunderstood semicolon.

Yesterday I was the guest speaker at the Troy Rotary Club luncheon. I met a lovely group of business people, retirees and members of the community — an attentive audience for my talk on writing and communication. During the Q&A session, master communicator Michael Caruso asked for my top three writing pet peeves.

Easy …

Number 3: Non-parallel construction.  Number 2: Jargon, especially in the business world. More about those another day.

And number 1: Semicolon disease.

Here at Wow Writing Workshop, we are so cautious about using semicolons, I had to twist my partner’s  arm to use one in our brochure. And now Kim can’t stop herself. Semicolons are showing up in her emails, in client materials, on grocery lists. She would have written this entry herself, but she is too busy with her 10-Step Punctuation Recovery Program.

So what’s the story with semicolons? According to Grammar Girl, our favorite language guru, “Semicolons separate things. Most commonly, they separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other but that could stand on their own as sentences if you wanted them to.”  Of course, there’s more to it than that; you can read Grammar Girl’s semicolon entry for the details.

I once asked a student what she knew about semicolons. She very proudly told me, “A comma is a green light; a semicolon is a yellow light; a period is a red light.” She was a relatively new driver, so I asked how many yellow lights she came across in her travels. Just as I suspected … not too many. I suggested she take the same approach with semicolons. Use them sparingly.

How do you feel about punctuation?