the waning of semicolon use

Slate Magazine has a fun read: Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon? An excerpt:

From the 1850s onward, it’s virtually impossible to find anyone claiming a prevalence of semicolons in writing. We now lived, complained a critic in 1854, in a “fast era” that neglected punctuation; by 1895, the Times took it for granted that “[m]any writers have adopted the plan of punctuating as little as possible.” What these writers intuited had an empirical basis: A 1995 study tallying punctuation in period texts found a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7.

Researcher Paul Bruthiaux notes the steepest semicolon drop-off came in the mid-19th century—a finding that matches the gap between Poe’s 1848 complaint and that 1865 “rejection.” Technology is a leading suspect in rapid aesthetic shifts, so consider what debuted in the 1850s that might radically change language usage: the telegraph.


The semicolon has spent the last century as a fussbudget mark. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell disdained it; Kurt Vonnegut once informed a Tufts University crowd that “All [semicolons] do is show that you’ve been to college.” New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s favorite put-down for egghead bureaucrats who got in his way was “semicolon boy.”

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One Response to the waning of semicolon use

  1. Eric Stoller says:

    I remain grateful that the use of the comma has not waned 😉

    PS: I use semicolons all the time when I make winking emoticons!

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