How to use semicolons and influence people

May. 29, 2013 | by Danny Chadburn

I’m not one for grandiose resolutions. My novel can stay as an internal dialogue, my million-dollar business idea can hold off for another 12 months, and I’m highly likely to have a cigarette at some point when the beer garden gets the better of me. However, on 1st January 2013 I decided it was about time I used more varied punctuation; so far things are going well.

I’d like to share with you some of that unbridled joy, encouraging you to add a few symbolic embellishments to your content.

In these heady days of IM and SMS, punctuation has become somewhat optional, and much of your desktop keyboard seems like an unnecessary waste of space. Some smartphone keyboards actively discourage the use of punctuation, with awkward navigation to the dreaded ‘Menu of Underused Symbols’, while a ‘smiley’ shortcut is immediately to hand.

Let’s rise against this systematic punctuational extinction, proudly weave these symbols into your tweets, status updates and blog posts, beginning with the often feared semicolon.

What is it?

The Italian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder established the practice of using the semicolon (c. 1494) to separate words of opposed meaning and to indicate interdependent statements. It’s now considered by as “The most pretentious of all punctuation.”

Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves nicely sums up where it sits in the family of punctuation options “…where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy, the semicolon quietly practises the piano with crossed hands.”

Broken down, into something more meaningful, it can be considered either as a weaker full stop, or a more substantial comma.

When should you use it?

Semicolons help you to layer sentences correctly, and allow your reader to understand connections between statements without you having to overuse conjunctions (such as and, but, and or).

If you’re writing a list of items that require their own internal punctuation, separate them with a semicolon. If you’re not quite finished with your sentence but need a clear boundary, use a semicolon.

How does it work within a sentence?

The Oatmeal makes learning grammar fun, and has much better examples that I could ever come up with, along with an illustration of a party gorilla. Semicolons: A Love Story from The New York Times has fewer primates, but an equal measure of examples to take inspiration from.

Taking some recognisable company taglines, it’s easy to see how a small change can make a big inclinational difference.

“Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat” could work with either a comma, full stop or semicolon, but I think “Have a Break; Have a Kit Kat” works beautifully, suggesting a definitive pause in which to snap off a finger and savour the chocolate-covered wafer biscuit bar.

A similar thought could be applied to “Maybe She’s Born With It, Maybe It’s Maybelline”, however the use of a comma suggests the writer hasn’t fully considered the natural beauty of the woman in question and immediately decides it must be the makeup that’s to thank for her appearance. “Maybe She’s Born With It; Maybe It’s Maybelline” would show a little more consideration.

“Virgin Atlantic; more experience than our name suggests” is also an improvement on the original comma, with the semicolon prepping the reader for the saucy end to the sentence.

Semicolons aren’t for everybody, but if you want to add an air of sophistication to your branded content it can be a lovely button to press now and again.

Did you know?

The semicolon replaces the question mark in Greek. σύγχυση;

Will your CMS like it?

Any WYSIWYG editor should be able to handle this common piece of punctuation, but we know that not all CMS editors were created equal. The semicolon is a regular tool in the back-end programmer’s collection so there’s some unpredictability in how it will be rendered on the front-end across the various browsers, and especially within meta content. Before you publish, check that things are behaving as they should be, and if you need to, use these hardcoded alternatives.

  • Unicode: U+003B
  • HTML: ;

Next month I’m planning to tackle my own guilty pleasure…the ellipsis. If you’re staring at your keyboard wondering what some of the less faded buttons are for, drop a comment and I’ll add it to the list.

Follow the full punctuation series here.

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    Comments (5)

    • Punctuating your content – #2 Ellipsis - iCrossing

      [...] month I looked at the influences of the semicolon, but now my personal fancy is the ellipsis; three little dots that can mean so [...]Jun 14, 2013 03:40 pm

    • jelly

      Great post Danny. I smiled a few times as I read through it - love your writing!Jun 4, 2013 05:21 pm

    • Danny Chadburn

      There was a good thread on Reddit last week discussing this very quote: 29, 2013 06:22 pm

    • Robert Wright (@robmwright)

      I've always liked (but not agreed with) Kurt Vonnegut on Semi-Colons:

      “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”May 29, 2013 05:35 pm

    • Panda

      ¬ ?May 29, 2013 01:30 pm

    Please note: the opinions expressed in this post represent the views of the individual, not necessarily those of iCrossing.

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