Anyone who learned to type on a QWERTY keyboard would be excused for thinking the semicolon is the most important mark of punctuation in English; why else would it be sitting right there on the home row?
Touch typists will know what “home row” means: a, s, d, f, j, k, l, semi. As in semicolon.
Some of us love it; some of us don’t. Many writers can go a whole week without using one.
But what if the semicolon wasn’t just a fancy substitute for the period? What if it could be used more liberally, as a sort of strong, all-purpose comma? Such usage was once common, and it still has its place in creative writing, as we will see.
The Semicolon; or, A Nineteenth-Century Mark
The semicolon may seem oddly out of place on the home row today, but things used to be different. When the QWERTY configuration was new—the semicolon first appeared in its current location on the Remington 2, which went on sale in 1878—the semicolon was a big deal.
To see how big, let’s look at three classic English-language novels from about the middle of the nineteenth century.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), was first published in the early 1870s. Its text includes 1,876 semicolons across 318,332 words. Estimating 425 words per page as typical of a modern paperback edition with small type (which puts the book at 749 pages), that’s 2.5 semicolons per page. Impressive.*
Or Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, published in the early 1850s. That one has 1,385 semicolons sprinkled across 355,368 words (or 836 pages, according to the calculation used for Middlemarch). That’s a bit less than 1.7 semicolons per page. Still a fair amount.
But in the United States, where QWERTY was invented, Herman Melville had those two books beat by a nautical mile. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, published in separate editions in England and the United States in 1851, features 4,169 semicolons, not counting the one in the original American version of the title. Assuming about 503 pages (for 213,665 words), that’s almost 8.3 semicolons per page.
Moby-Dick seems unusual.† So let’s check two more. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (mid-1880s) has almost 6 semicolons per page; and, coincidentally, so does Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (late 1860s). The hybrid mark was clearly popular.
Stronger than a Comma; Weaker than a Period
So much for the numbers. How were these semicolons being used?
- As an alternative to the period between two closely related independent clauses or sentences. See the opening paragraph of this post for an example.
- In place of commas between items in a complex series, especially when one or more of those items is already punctuated with at least one comma. For example, semicolons can be helpful in a list of cities and states: “We visited Duluth, Minnesota; Abilene, Texas; and Detroit, Michigan.”
In formal expository prose, those two uses are usually all that an editor will permit.
But there’s also a less common use that’s not covered in CMOS but which can be deduced from that second rule. In this role, the semicolon acts like a strong comma, but not necessarily in a series.
This more flexible approach to the semicolon was once common.
A couple of sentences from the end of Moby-Dick will show what I mean:
For an instant, the tranced boat’s crew stood still; then turned. “The ship? Great God, where is the ship?” Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea.
The first semicolon is especially interesting. In the space of that formal pause, it dawns on the crew of the auxiliary whaleboat that the Pequod is doomed. The semicolon signals a moment that’s equivalent to dread. A comma there would have felt ordinary; a dash, too obviously dramatic.
The next two semicolons could be replaced by commas—or dashes—but semicolons in this book are inevitable; here, they hold the masts up to view one last time as they follow their ship into the depths.
If semicolon usage in the other nineteenth-century novels tends to be more conventional than in this one, their frequency in Moby-Dick opens the door to some creative possibilities.
A lot has happened since the nineteenth century.
There was, predictably, a sort of backlash against the mark in the twentieth century. But don’t believe everything you read; the semicolon has never dropped entirely out of fashion.‡
To prove this, and to get a good look at what’s happening right now, I called up the most recent twelve new stories from the Fiction section of the New Yorker. Listing the stories in chronological order from oldest to newest, here’s what I found.
- “The Bunty Club,” by Tessa Hadley: 41 semicolons
- “God’s Caravan,” by Tiphanie Yanique: no semicolons
- “The Flier,” by Joseph O’Neill: 7 semicolons
- “The Trip,” by Weike Wang: 2 semicolons
- “Arizona,” by John Edgar Wideman: no semicolons
- “The Curfew,” by Roddy Doyle: 24 semicolons
- “Old Hope,” by Clare Sestanovich: 1 semicolon
- “Sevastopol,” by Emilio Fraia (trans. from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry): 5 semicolons
- “Only Orange,” by Camille Bordas: 6 semicolons
- “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” by Jamil Jan Kochai: no semicolons
- “Found Wanting,” by Douglas Stuart: 10 semicolons
- “Visitor,” by Bryan Washington: 1 semicolon
Fully half of the stories include no more than two semicolons; of those, three feature no semicolons at all. All but two of the stories feature less than one semicolon per page (calculated using the same word-to-page-count formula I used for the nineteenth-century novels).
On the other hand, two of the stories—the ones by Hadley and Doyle—are, relatively speaking, fairly peppered with semicolons. Hadley’s story is almost twice as long as Doyle’s, so they come out to about the same frequency (just under three semicolons per page).
But what I’m most excited about isn’t the variation in frequency, from sparely modern to nineteenth-century ornate—it’s that at least a few of the semicolons in these stories are being used in the creative ways suggested by Melville.
The stories with no more than five semicolons feature only the conventional, between-independent-clauses type—and that’s by far the most common usage across all of the stories. For example,
I heard the click of the turntable in the living room; the record had ended. (Fraia, “Sevastopol”)
But in each of the five stories that feature six or more semicolons, there are some creative exceptions.
For example, O’Neill uses semicolons rather than commas for a series of relative clauses:
I overheard Pam telling Viki that Becky had physically attacked her; that it wasn’t the first time this had happened; that on this occasion Pam had felt in mortal danger. (“The Flier”)
This is the moment when the story, narrated by a man who learns he can fly, is brought down to earth; semicolons provide the needed gravity.
In Hadley, the semicolons mostly pile independent clauses one on top of the other; two sentences in the opening paragraph feature four semicolons between them. Their frequency seems fitting in a story that features a main character who just happens to be reading The Mill on the Floss (an Eliot novel that, at 5.6 semicolons per page, outdoes Middlemarch).
But not all of Hadley’s semicolons are by the book:
Having finished strimming, he was making his way home to the caravan where he was living temporarily because his wife had kicked him out; on foot, because his vehicle was with his brother-in-law, who was looking at the fuel pump. (“The Bunty Club”)
Many writers would have used a dash before “on foot”—or maybe a period, which would have set up a sentence fragment; but the semicolon is less insistent.
Now let’s look at a sentence from Bordas:
In fact, there was a part of me that believed that Audrey knew exactly how lucky she was, but that she also knew that, as an orphan, there were all these strings she could pull to induce sympathy, love, and guilt, to buy excuses, to explain herself; and that she intended to pull those strings until they broke, which they never would, because when you were a born orphan—that is, when you’d actually spent your first few months or years in an orphanage—you got to be an orphan for life. (“Only Orange”)
That semicolon could easily be replaced by a comma or a dash. But the semicolon helps to add an additional layer; and a third dash ahead of the other two would have ruined the symmetry and disrupted the sentence as it builds toward its Pyrrhic, sardonic conclusion.
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There’s more, but these samples should be enough to show that semicolons are still a thing, even in fiction, where they have retained their place on the continuum between comma and period. Writers and editors would do well to remain alert to the possibilities and not automatically override them with conventions intended more for expository prose than for creative writing.
* To get the stats for Middlemarch and the other books in this section, I used the main text, excluding title page and table of contents, of the HTML versions at Project Gutenberg.
† As Cecelia Watson pointed out in her essential book-length study of the semicolon, Moby-Dick was unusual even for Melville; his novel Typee (1846) featured only 3.3 semicolons per page (my calculation). See Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (New York: Ecco, 2019), p. 135.
‡ American author Ursula Le Guin, in observing her own use of the semicolon, incidentally summed up the debate:
What it comes down to, I guess, is that I am just not manly. Like Ernest Hemingway was manly. . . . Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.” (“Introducing Myself,” in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination [Boston: Shambhala, 2004], p. 5)
See also Gertrude Stein, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, and others. For the record, Hemingway’s works weren’t entirely free of semicolons; see, for example, the first sentence in the second paragraph of A Farewell to Arms.
Top image: Microsoft’s Segoe UI Emoji font rendering of Spouting Whale (semicolon in Calibri).
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Russell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.