A soft spot for the semicolon

I bought a pair of glasses last week, and my new frames have punctuation marks on them. Specifically, there is a colon on one side and a semicolon on the other. SAMSUNG I have a bit of a soft spot for the semicolon. It’s misunderstood. A lot of writers are afraid to use it. Other writers do use it but use it incorrectly, often placing a semicolon where a comma should be instead. Even the name “semicolon” makes it sound as if it is a lesser point of punctuation than the colon.

Since semicolons aren’t the most commonly used punctuation mark, readers don’t see much of them. This creates a vicious cycle. I’ve heard that some publishers avoid the semicolon because the punctuation mark can be “distracting” to readers. I’m not sure I believe that, but even if it’s true, readers wouldn’t be distracted by the semicolon if they were more used to seeing it.

I love the semicolon for the sort of outsider persona I’ve imagined it having, but of course I also love it for what it actually does. The semicolon helps avoid confusion by separating listed items that contain commas. For example, “I’ll be going with Carl; Carl’s mother, Sheila; Jennifer; and Pat.” The semicolon tells the reader that Sheila is the name of Carl’s mother and not a separate person. The semicolon has been very helpful here—thank you, semicolon!—but this is not the only way to use this punctuation mark.

I like using a semicolon to connect two independent clauses; that’s my favourite way to use it. In the previous sentence, the two clauses would work fine as two sentences, separated by a period. But the semicolon ties them together so neatly. It offers a pause that’s just long enough—not too long, but not too short—that illustrates the link between the two statements. (Want more information about how to use the semicolon? Check out this post.)

A text can’t be read properly by concentrating only on the words. Just as music notation helps a musician understand how to play the notes, punctuation tells the reader how to read the words. So even though the semicolon might be my favourite punctuation mark, I love them all; they’re all equally important. But I’m happy to help give the semicolon a little more exposure.

Why we need to stop talking about the serial comma

I’ve avoided writing about the serial comma. I hear about it more than I’d like to, so I’ve tried to stay out of the conversation. But I’ve reached my limit. I need to say something: The serial comma doesn’t make your writing any better, and it doesn’t make it worse. If you’re either a strong advocate for it or a fervid critic of it, you’ve missed the point.

There. I said it. Now let me explain.

Choosing to use the serial comma, which is the comma that’s placed in front of “and” before the final item in a list (e.g. “blue, red, and green”), is a style preference. Some people use it; some people don’t. Stylistic decisions should be consistent, but they’re not right or wrong.

However, there are many writers and editors who give the serial comma more credit than it deserves. I’ve seen some people include their opinion on it in their Twitter bios, and I’ve read various blog posts, tweets and articles by defenders of the serial comma.

Recently, this tweet appeared multiple times in my Twitter feed. It includes a link to a page with the headline, “A Case for the Oxford Comma in One Screenshot” and displays a screenshot of a tweet from Sky News.

Image taken from slate.com (http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2013/12/10/oxford_comma_sky_news_tweet_suggests_that_obama_and_castro_have_set_a_date.html)

Image taken from slate.com (http://slate.me/1bBZXRu)

The assertion was that the tweet could be misinterpreted as saying presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro had set a wedding date. Inserting a serial comma before “and” would show that these are two separate items. This is true. But it’s not the only solution.

In any type of writing, it’s not the lack of a serial comma that creates the confusion; poor writing does. If the headlines listed in the above tweet were rearranged, there would be no misunderstanding.

Here’s another way to illustrate this. When writers explain why the serial comma is necessary, they often use this example: “I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah.” The problem here is that it’s unlikely the author’s parents are actually Bill Clinton and Oprah, as the sentence indicates.

Placing a comma after “Bill Clinton” is one way to fix this, but it’s not the only way. The author can also change the sentence: “I’d like to thank Bill Clinton, Oprah and my parents.” See? No serial comma and yet no confusion.

In fact, sometimes using the serial comma can make things unclear. Take, for example, the sentence “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John, and Mark.” Is the magician named John? Or has Tina gone to dinner with three people? If John is the magician, the author can change the sentence to something like “Tina went to dinner with John, who is a magician, and Mark.”

If John and the magician are different people, the author can remove the serial comma: “Tina went to dinner with a magician, John and Mark.” To keep the serial comma, an alternative is to rearrange the listed items: “Bill went to dinner with John, Ted, and a magician.”

The point is, there are options. In my career, I’ve been requested at various times to use the serial comma and not to use it, and I’ve never had any strong feelings either way, as long as the style was consistent.

It’s nice to see so many people care about punctuation, but don’t miss the point by getting into a frivolous argument. If you want to write better, stop caring about being for or against the serial comma and start caring more about communicating clearly.