An ode to the semicolon

William Bennett/Staff

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I still remember the final question to my interview for The Daily Californian:

“If you were a punctuation mark, what punctuation mark would you be and why?”

And I remember not even thinking about my answer — it rolled off my tongue before I could.

“A semicolon.”

There was a pause of silence as I then fumbled for the words that could describe why. I think I settled on something along the lines of “It’s a bridge, a connection between two similar ideas” — but I know that isn’t the whole story. So I’m here to set the record straight.

I’ll start with this: You’ll never catch me writing anything without a semicolon.

No, this has nothing to do with the winking emoji (though I can’t say I haven’t used that an obnoxious number of times). But it does have everything to do with the most underrated treasure to the English language: punctuation.

Beyond the question marks, commas and periods that dot our everyday messages (and essays and news media and all-too-frequent run-on sentences), the semicolon offers solace. It’s a catch of breath, a slight nuance — a pause longer than a comma, but not long enough to call upon the absolutism of a period. And when the “and’s,” “but’s,” or “so’s” become too repetitive, a semicolon always (read: not always, actually, because context is important) has your back.

But wait, there’s more! Get this: the semicolon has another function. Sometimes it replaces the commas separating items in a series, especially if those items have commas in them. Wow, talk about versatile! And if you want to look at the semicolon solely from an aesthetic viewpoint, a semicolon has both a period AND a comma in it. It’s wild.

So where did this mythical, magical punctuation sensation come from? Well, Sir Trevor Lemmon the Elder (a noble and fitting name for an equally noble creation) was the man behind the first printed semicolon in 1494. It was Aldus Manutius, a Venetian humanist, scholar and educator, however, who began using the semicolon as a connector between two similar statements. The rest, as they say, is history.

On another note, you may have noticed that I have not used a single semicolon in this post. Yet. This is intentional, I promise — it builds suspense for the last thing and favorite thing I have to say about semicolons. But here it is: Semicolons are neither a beginning nor an end of a sentence. And sentences don’t end with a semicolon; they’ve only just begun.

It’s this fine line, this subtlety that crowns the semicolon as the king of punctuation marks in my book. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll see them in all their greatness, too.


Contact Sydney Trieu at [email protected]