© Damen, 2002
"Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college." (Kurt Vonnegut, author)
A professor wrote this sentence on the board:
"A woman without her man is nothing" and told the class to punctuate
it properly. The males in the class wrote, "A woman, without her man, is
nothing." The females in the class wrote, "A woman: without her, man
There are seven legitimate pieces of punctuation: the comma (,), the period (.), the question mark (?), the exclamation point (!), the colon (:), the semicolon (;) and parentheses ().
Dashes are also acceptable these days but should be used with discretion. Avoid things like slashes, dots, a series of question marks, exclamation points and happy faces [;-)]. Indeed, you'd do well to restrict yourself as much as possible to the comma and the period. In particular, colons should be used mainly in introducing lists, such as a catalogue of punctuational situations to avoid in formal writing: asking too many questions, exclaiming noisily at your reader, including lengthy thoughts encased in parentheses, and overusing the semicolon.
? Questions, and thus question marks, are fine for your papers here, but don't put in too many, please. By asking questions you are essentially avoiding clear and definitive statements (see #2 above), aren't you? And it makes it harder for the reader to see your point, doesn't it? And in the end, questions piled on top of more questions are just plain annoying, aren't they, because the reader can't answer back but is faced with an incessant barrage of "don't you," isn't he?
! While I applaud and wish to nourish your enthusiasm for learning, your eagerness to study the past should not entail shouting or raised voices, which the exclamation point implies. Yelling is unnecessary in any form of academic discourse, since, as I've already said, I guarantee you my full and undivided attention whatever you write. So, don't use exclamation points! Nobody likes to be shouted at!! OKAY!!!
( ) Also, avoid parentheses as much as possible (they make it look like you are talking to the reader in some sort of informal confabulation, hee hee!). That implies you have some secret to tell (as if you're looking directly into the camera and saying something privately to the audience). If, instead, you tie everything you say into the main argument, there will be no need for passing such notes in class or making coy asides (or using lots of parentheses).
I'll be frank. I think the semicolon is a monster, the Frankenstein of modern punctuation, a mutant form not quite a period but something more than a comma, shaped out of both but functioning as neither. Skilled writers, like good drivers, know when to make a full stop and when to slow down but keep going. So, if periods are full stops and commas show where the text merely slows down and changes lanes, semicolons frankly are sentences rolling through stop lights and crosswalks. Furthermore, in my experience people tend to use the semicolon rather pretentiously, when they're trying to make their writing look scholarly, whether or not it really is. So while I can't absolutely forbid you from using semicolons since they're entrenched on our keyboards, I encourage you not to. But if you want to, then fine; go ahead; put in semicolons; just know that, if I were the punctuation police, I'd give you a ticket for rolling through syntax!
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