Semicolon or full stop?

Keep calmOne of my professors in a writing workshop once complained that I had started a story with “an explosion of comma splices.” While I appreciated the clever new collective noun, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it. He advocated switching to a period (aka full stop), but I initially rebelled. I was trying to convey a certain flow, a sense of not coming to a complete standstill, even though the clauses in my sentences were fully independent.

Any language nerd knows that the obvious remedy for my problem was to switch to semicolons. That is the form of punctuation specifically called for in this situation. Personally, however, I tend to shy away from semicolons. Some people find them pedantic. Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote, “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

While I’m sure he was not entirely serious, semicolons have an aesthetic problem: they look like more of an obstacle (in a visual sense) than a period does.  So when I’m reading, a semicolon almost conveys more of a break than a full stop.

This leaves me with three choices: 1) ignore the rules and use the comma; 2) follow the rules and put up with the unsightliness of the semicolon; 3) accept the minuscule difference in pause implied by the full stop. While slightly inclined to follow #1 (artist’s maxim: I learned the rules, now I can break them), the fact that my work has to pass by an editor who is also well-versed in the rules suggested I’d be better off with #2 or #3, and save the rule-breaking until I’m famous and can throw my authorial weight around.

A moment of silence please, before my dear friends the commas depart.




  1. JennyH · · Reply

    I love semicolons, always have. They are elegant and precise; they do exactly what I need them to do, no more and no less. They are the aristocrats of grammar; those vulgar commas are prolifc, unruly and disruptive by comparison.

    1. Did the British invent semicolons? Non of my fellow American students made the case for them. One reader found the comma splices “annoying,” but realized I was trying to approximate a speech pattern and therefore “let it go.” My favorite comment was from another student who wrote, “You rock those comma splices! Ignore the haters.”

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