The Man Who Hated Semicolons



Ten years ago, the author Kurt Vonnegut stirred things up with four sentences he wrote in his final book, A Man Without a Country: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

One must consider the source here. Vonnegut was a world-renowned novelist who had earned the right to make outrageous statements. He was not condemning all semicolons; he was condemning all pretentiousness.

As Vonnegut well knew, semicolons have at least one legitimate role: to separate items in a series when one or more of the items contain commas. Look at this mess of a sentence: The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas, Moscow, Idaho, Venice, California, and other places as well. How could a reader know that only three specific locations are mentioned? The simple fix is three semicolons:  The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas; Moscow, Idaho; Venice, California; and other places as well. (Yes, Italy is a town in Texas.)

What Vonnegut disdained was the discretionary semicolon, used by writers to combine complete sentences when a period feels too final, as in this example:  I looked at her; she smiled; we danced until dawn. Here the semicolons blend three terse statements into one sentence, which, in the writer’s opinion, more faithfully evokes the flow of events on that enchanted evening. (Vonnegut would have preferred three short sentences.) Note that there are no conjunctions in the sentence. If the last clause were  and we danced until dawn, commas would suffice, and most editors would banish the semicolons.

Fledgling writers especially should be wary of semicolons where commas will do. One wonders what the Vonnegut of 2005 would have said about the following sentence, written by a twenty-seven-year-old novelist: “Kroner’s belief [was] that nothing of value changed; that what was once true is always true; that truths were few and simple; and that a man needed no knowledge beyond these truths to deal wisely and justly with any problem whatsoever.”

The young author would defend his semicolons, claiming they give more weight to each clause than a comma could. But many editors would want commas there. The sentence, by the way, is from Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel, Player Piano (1950).

Less than twenty years after Player Piano, Vonnegut achieved success beyond his wildest dreams. He had found his voice and streamlined his approach. Taken at face value, Vonnegut’s writing tip is sound advice—for Vonnegut. Semicolons do not suit the inimitable laconic style he perfected in the sixties, when he was lionized by the Baby Boomer generation.

Semicolons: Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Our answers are below.

1. He was too critical she was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes; a white picket fence a wonderful husband two gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
3. Vanitia told me her wishes a white picket fence a handsome, successful husband two intelligent, gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
4. He walked down the street he could not find her he went home feeling hopeless.
5. He walked down the street he caught a bus and it took him home.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. He was too critical; she was not critical enough. OR He was too critical. She was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence, a wonderful husband, three gifted children, and a million dollars in the bank. (Note the colon after “wishes.” Do not confuse colons with semicolons.)
3. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence; a handsome, successful husband; three intelligent, gifted children; and a million dollars in the bank. (The commas after “handsome” and “intelligent” make semicolons necessary.)
4. He walked down the street; he could not find her; he went home feeling hopeless. (Or periods.)
5. He walked down the street, he caught a bus, and it took him home.

Posted on Tuesday, March 31, 2015, at 8:34 am

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