semicolon3_Blog

eLearning content writers beware! A rogue punctuation mark is on the loose, and your writing may be in danger.

;

If you come across this fiend, do not attempt to apprehend!
Please contact your local English teacher for assistance.

As any past or present student can attest, the semicolon is a big source of controversy in English writing.

In less civilized times, the mark has even been the subject of a duel. In 1837, two professors at the University of Paris were arguing about the correct grammar of a piece of Ancient Roman texts. One insisted that a certain sentence required the use of a colon, while the other insisted that a semicolon would be more appropriate. Tempers flared and before long, swords were drawn, the semicolon defender ultimately getting his arm slashed.

But why? Why is a simple dot on top of squiggle a reason for so much hate?

The semicolon found it’s humble beginnings in Ancient Greece as a sort of question mark. This eventually fell out of style and for many hundreds of years, the record on these pesky punctuations becomes spotty. By 1494, Aldus Manutius, a printer and scholar of the classics, brought them back into the world, but with a function more like what we see today.

Since that time, the semicolon’s use has waxed and waned, with some holding it up as a beautiful and democratic equalizer to break up sentences into equal thoughts, while others look down their noses at it, seeing it as a bourgeois symbol of arrogant writers who don’t know how to use commas or periods.

Ask two different writers and you will inevitably get 5 different opinions on the proper usage (if there is any) of this elusive symbol.

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.”

-Abraham Lincoln

“No one knows what they are anymore … If you’re not in the habit of reading nineteenth-century novels, you think that the author has killed a fruit fly directly above a comma”

-John Irving, “Semicolons with Soul”

“The semicolon allows woozy clauses to lean on each other like drunks for support.”
– Paul Collins

The sad truth is, semicolons are precision tools that we often treat as blunt instruments. If you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of the semicolon, I would suggest against using it, especial in eLearning where typos, misspellings, and grammar mistakes are particularly embeyrussing. (Right?) If used under the steady hand of a master wordsmith, the semicolon can craft beautiful sentence; used by a novice, it just looks tacky, like a twelve-year-old’s Star Trek fan-fiction. I’ll allow you to decide for yourself whether that last sentence falls under masterful or miserable category.

If you must use one; be sure to do so sparingly; no one wants to take an eLearning course that feels pasted together like a ransom note; eventually, that sentence has got to end; and the semicolon isn’t the man for the job; with overuse, it becomes little more than rickety pillar to prop up a glorified run-on sentence.

Semicolon responsibly, everyone.

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