Okay, it’s not that “great” a debate, but there was a fun piece yesterday on the Times website about semicolons, and how the author came to change his long-held antipathy toward semicolons—ingrained at an early age from Kurt Vonnegut—by reading William James. Love the illustration, and if you have time, read the comments—lots of great feedback and citations there.
Personally, I’ve had a negative opinion of semicolons, and as an editor I would regularly strike them from authors’ manuscripts. My feeling, echoed by every copyeditor I ever worked with, was that in kids’ books they stood out like sore thumbs. Indeed, I loved the comment from the sixth-grade teacher, who wrote that when she sees a semicolon in a kid’s paper, it’s invariably plagiarized. It’s just not a device that feels natural to a kid’s way of viewing the world, and as such, should probably be avoided at all costs.
But now that I’m an agent and working on a lot of adult projects, I’m finding that in certain contexts and genres, semicolons not only make sense but fill a vital role. Certainly in nonfiction, I agree with the author that the deft use of a semicolon can suggest a connection that other forms of punctuation—especially my beloved em-dashes—can’t quite pull off.
In fact, I’m wondering if in general, genre and categories provide a better guide for usage, rather than a simple yes/no in all circumstances. Indeed, I found it odd that the author of the piece didn’t acknowledge that his change of heart resulted from reading nonfiction (James) rather than fiction (Vonnegut). But then again, when it comes to style, maybe fiction and non aren’t the apples and oranges I’m making them out to be?
Anyway, Grammar Fans, I’d love to know your thoughts, and where you fall in the debate. Do you ever use semicolons? If so, for all types of writing? Who knows, depending on the response, you might see some more semicolons in my blog posts going forward; or not.