The end of the line for the semicolon?

The semicolon is facing grave danger.
Let’s save it! Unfortunately I have no time to explain why we should, as I’m fighting with boxes and work in equal measure. I’d still like to hear what you think.

By |2008-04-04T15:18:45+00:00April 4th, 2008|Technical corner|19 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Tony April 4, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    If you’re thinking about the silly catchpenny piece in The Guardian today, don’t take it too seriously; it’s written as if semicolons belong to the French. I’ll write on the subject from an English standpoint on Monday.

  2. Tony April 4, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    And, by the way, how many semicolons have YOU used since Jan 1st?

  3. Lesley April 4, 2008 at 9:21 pm

    I have no thought on the semi-colon; other than that I quite like using it from time to time. However, I am a little alarmed by some of the ads in your side bar. Here’s one : “Professional Interpreters
    Why pay so much for Interpreters we have them from 17 cents a minute!” and “Low-priced student translations Personal quote in less than 12h.” I hope nobody actually clicks on them.

  4. Bela April 5, 2008 at 3:44 am

    I love the semicolon; I use it a lot – in English and in French; I am not scared of it. Long live the semicolon!

  5. MM April 5, 2008 at 3:14 pm

    I’ve taken up this subject and am concentrating on the curious fact that Germans write semicolons starting with the comma. I suppose the French write it from the top down?

  6. James April 5, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    Since learning Spanish I have started using punto y coma much more in both languages. In fact, I find typical English punctuation rather breathless now.

  7. céline April 7, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Toni: interesting question! I didn’t really want to go through all my translations since the beginning of the year, but I did have a look at the document I translated on Friday out of curiosity. 2,581 words, 8 semicolons.
    MM: yes, top down. Funny Germans.
    Lesley: I regularly check that no ads that are too dodgy appear on my sidebar, but they change very quickly and it’s difficult to keep track of all of them.

  8. Tony April 7, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Céline, you didn’t say whether it was the English original or your translation that had the 8 semicolons. It would be interesting to compare the figures for each; if the same text had substantially different semi-colonisation in the two languages it would say something about the respective importance of semi-colons in French and English.
    No, on second thoughts it wouldn’t: it would just mean that the translator was much more (or less) of a point-virgulophile than the original author.
    This year I wrote 12,200 words and used 65 colons; I calculate that this makes me almost twice as lavish with the things as the writer (or the translator) of the document you mentioned.
    Sorry I raised this, really: it’s not all that interesting.

  9. céline April 8, 2008 at 8:51 am

    5 semicolons in the source text, 8 in my translation. You write 12,200 words a day?! Watch out for RSI!

  10. Tony April 8, 2008 at 10:57 am

    No no, I said this year, which makes only 124 words a day, not counting notes to the milkman etc. Anyway, you don’t get RSI if you use only two fingers, plus a thumb for the spacebar, and have a spongy thing to rest your wrists on.
    But I take back what I said: it IS quite interesting that you and the English writer of the document used semi-colons to roughly the same extent. I will leave you in peace now and go away to write a post about it all.

  11. Casey April 8, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Céline, I completely disagree. Rather than the end of the line for the semicolon, I think we’re actually experiencing a semicolon resurgence, at least in the United States! I posted about this in February, inspired by an article in the NYT praising the handy punctuation mark!

  12. Deborah April 24, 2008 at 4:02 am

    Without semicolons what would Russian > English translators do! It is common in Russian to separate what would be two complete sentences in English using only a comma…save the semicolon!

  13. Sal May 1, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    I am sorry to report that, in Spanish, many young people do not know the proper use of the semicolon any more, and it is falling into oblivion. It is a very useful and meaningful punctuation mark. We porfessionals should use it as often as needed.

  14. Lucais May 5, 2008 at 10:35 am

    In the US the semicolon is on its way out. People just don’t know how to use it. I think its a brilliant piece of punctuation, though; somewhere between a comma and period in its weight.

  15. Maryanne May 6, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Semicolons are critical to effective prose; save the semicolon! And, by the way, can we stab through the heart the misplaced apostrophe that creates a possessive masquerading as a plural?

  16. Madrigal May 7, 2008 at 2:55 am

    As a business writer I am a proponent of dot-points as a way of listing and breaking up what can be very dense text. Dot-points need semi-colons like dogs need tails.

  17. céline May 8, 2008 at 1:05 pm

    Ah, the misplaced apostrophe that infuriates so many! And Madrigal, what may be acceptable for a business document certainly isn’t for more creative texts.
    I’m still around everyone, just very busy with work and getting used to my new Northern life. Back to blogging normality soon.

  18. Pirate Peter August 10, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Thought this might be of interest
    Commas vs. Semicolons in Compound Sentences
    (Quoted from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab)
    A group of words containing a subject and a verb and expressing a complete thought is called a sentence or an independent clause. Sometimes, an independent clause stands alone as a sentence, and sometimes two independent clauses are linked together into what is called a compound sentence. Depending on the circumstances, one of two different punctuation marks can be used between the independent clauses in a compound sentence: a comma or a semicolon. The choice is yours.
    Comma (,)
    Use a comma after the first independent clause when you link two independent clauses with one of the following coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. For example:
    I am going home, and I intend to stay there.
    It rained heavily during the afternoon, but we managed to have our picnic anyway.
    They couldn’t make it to the summit and back before dark, so they decided to camp for the night.
    Semicolon (;)
    Use a semicolon when you link two independent clauses with no connecting words. For example:
    I am going home; I intend to stay there.
    It rained heavily during the afternoon; we managed to have our picnic anyway.
    They couldn’t make it to the summit and back before dark; they decided to camp for the night.
    You can also use a semicolon when you join two independent clauses together with one of the following conjunctive adverbs (adverbs that join independent clauses): however, moreover, therefore, consequently, otherwise, nevertheless, thus, etc. For example:
    I am going home; moreover, I intend to stay there.
    It rained heavily during the afternoon; however, we managed to have our picnic anyway.
    They couldn’t make it to the summit and back before dark; therefore, they decided to camp for the night.
    For more information about compound sentence patterns, see the Purdue OWL handout on Sentence Punctuation Patterns.

  19. céline August 15, 2008 at 3:29 pm


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