How Butch Is The ;?

A reader writes:

You'd think they'd have a more masculine reputation: when I was trying to figure out what gender my cat was, the advice I was given was to look for a colon if it was female and a semi-colon if it was male.

An English teacher adds:

Semi-colons are simple to use accurately; they have two functions.  The first is to sort independent clauses and join them signifying a relationship of simultaneity between the clauses. The second is to sort overly long items in series or items in series when each item already contains a list of comma sorted items within it. 
Commas, because of their multi-functionality, are far more widely misused and/or omitted.

I have read well over a hundred thousand college essays, and believe me when I tell you that comma usage errors outstrip semi-colon errors by a factor of about a hundred to one. So Kinsley's point is a bit of nonsense. 

The problem with semi-colon errors occurs because semi-colons are used so rarely that a reader notices every single one.  Puh-lease, if you are going to nitpick an issue of punctuation, a detestable pettiness that consigns English teachers such as myself to the seventh circle of hell, know what you are talking about and understand that punctuation is used so that the reader will understand the structure of the writer's thinking.  It is a tool (not a rule) for effective, streamlined communication, nothing more and nothing less.


I’ve never understood harshing on the semi-colon. My theory is that semi-colon bashing arises from ignorance about how to use it, but even this doesn’t explain why people find the semicolon so difficult to grasp. It’s really quite simple, if you understand the difference between a dependent and an independent clause and know a complicated series or list when you see it (and someone of Kinsley’s ability should). Which is to say, semicolons separate independent clauses NOT joined by a conjunction (thus your recent usage: “he fashioned a key on his computer that would, in one stroke, remove all semi-colons and replace them with a period and a capital letter for the next word; or maybe I remember that wrong.” is incorrect, since “or” joins the two independent clauses and so would dictate a comma). And semicolons are used to separate items in a list when a comma is used within any single item (thus Kinsley’s macro for removing semicolons and converting them to full stops would almost surely introduce editorial chaos into a piece of writing because it wrongly assumes the only use of a semicolon is to separate independent clauses).

Beyond that, discretionary uses of the semicolon (and I assume that’s really what Kinsley and others object to) are no more or less complicated that discretionary uses of the comma. Writers make all sorts of judgments about style and voices everyday that are exponentially more difficult than figuring out how to use the semicolon. Besides, ban the semicolon, and you eliminate an entire middle of register of emphasis and gradations of pace that semicolons help provide. But then I’m gay, so maybe my fondness for the semicolon was predestined.