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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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