Le point-virgule

Why do people have so much trouble using the semicolon ? After a week end reading about semicolons on blogs, I noticed that most people face difficulties when they need to use them. What is its function ? How to use it ? When ? Where ? …

The Oatmeal, a comics and articles website, has even elected the semicolon as « the most feared punctuation on earth ».

As far as I remember, no teachers in primary school have ever given us a clear definition of semicolon. When you learn how to read and write, you are only explained when to use a comma and when to use a period. You are taught how to read these punctuations, how to mark a pause, how to adapt the pace of your voice, how to make it sound clear and understaindable. But never have I ever heard my teacher precising anything about this semicolon. Or at least, not enough for me to remember it. Not surprising then, when you hear that pupils tend to be « afraid » of it.

Some students have been asked to tell about semicolons after studying an excerpt of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way:

Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs, they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them, and an avalanche of afflictions or ailments succeeding one another without interruption in a family will not make it doubt the goodness of its God or the talent of its doctor.

« I hate those semicolon. I don’t understand it ! This excerpt is so hard to read ! When you reach the final period, not only you are close to constriction, but also, you can’t even remember the beginning of what you’ve just read! »

Obviously, if used intensively, the semicolon loses its charm; because its purpose is mainly stylistic. In A Dash of Style, Lukeman characterized the semicolon as « never necessary » gramatically speaking – as it can be replaced by either a coma or a period – but « best suited » for creative writers:

The semicolon is a powerfull tool in the writer’s arsenal. It is probably the most elegant of all forms of punctuations.

It’s all about knowing how to use it!

As a general rule, both books – A Dash of Style and Style & Difference – recommend to use it when the coma is not sufficient to separate and when the period separates too much. The semicolon is an alternative to both of them, it’s a « bridge between two worlds« . semicolon


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