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Poor forgotten semicolon?

Punctuation is making news yet again. The semicolon is the mark in question this time. I just wasn’t aware of the tumultuous history of that half comma, half colon.

In an article in Slate, writer Paul Collins ponders the question; Has modern life killed the semicolon?

Paul writes:

The semicolon has a remarkable lineage: Ancient Greeks used it as a question mark; and after classical scholar and master printer Aldus Manutius revived it in a 1494 font set, semicolons slowly spread across Europe. Though London first saw semicolons appear in a 1568 chess guide, Shakespeare grew up in an era that still scarcely recognized them; some of his Folio typesetters in 1623, though, were clearly converts.

Further, he writes:

By the new century, simplified punctuation migrated into textbooks; one 1903 guide recommended that “Boys and girls … should as a rule use a period when they are tempted to use a semicolon.

I generally go by this philosophy; to be on the safe side. ( Teachers, did I use that correctly? )

Oddly enough, in 1848 Edgar Allen Poe ( Poe? Odd? Ha! ) claimed to have been “mortified” over the abundance of semicolons printers were using but by 1895 The Times declared “[m]any writers have adopted the plan of punctuating as little as possible.” Paul goes on to write about a “stunning drop in semicolon usage” discovered by a 1995 study which tallied punctuation in writings from different periods. From “68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7” between the 18th and 19th centuries. I, for one, am stunned.

It must be that people just don’t know how to use them. Time4Writing’s Basic Middle School Mechanics and Time4Learning’s automated Language Arts program can teach them how to use it for purposes other than that cute winky guy ;o)


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