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Some people hate semicolons; some find them rather appealing

The semicolon isn’t the most common punctuation mark; however, it does manage to stir up some pretty some strong and divisive feelings.

Writers like Charles Dickens and Ben Johnson were both big fans of the mark; they felt it was nuanced and sophisticated.

However, plenty of other writers have thrown shade at the semi-colon.

The mark has been called “odious," “unnecessary," and “sissified." Kurt Vonnegut once said that all semicolons do is “show that you’ve been to college.” 

It’s certainly true that the semi-colon isn’t going to win a popularity contest any time soon. Semicolons only make up around one and a half to two percent of all punctuation used in print.

But it hasn’t always been that way.

Semicolon use exploded in the 18th century. In fact, there were periods in the 19th centuries when authors were using it a little, shall we say, excessively.

Consider the following passage from Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel "Brideshead Revisited":

I have been here before," I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

A bit much, no?

Remember though that much like fashion, our standards for punctuation tend to change over time, which may explain why semi-colon use has grown more infrequent. Some writers avoiding using the mark altogether.

However, if plaid flannel shirts and acid washed jeans are any indicator, fashion tends to be cyclical; a semi-colon resurgence could be just around the corner.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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