Paul Collins, in a recent Slate article, cited a study showing “a stunning drop in semicolon usage between the 18th and 19th centuries, from 68.1 semicolons per thousand words to just 17.7.” This is a reference from another article, at Boston Globe, where Jan Freeman quotes views as these: the semicolon is “ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly,” “Real men, goes the unwritten rule of American punctuation, don’t use semi-colons”, the semicolon is “girly,” “odious,” and “the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless mark of punctuation ever invented.”
The English semicolon is the Greek question mark. In Greek the semicolon is written as a full stop, but raised to the top of the letters· (I hope your font can display that). The semicolon, as we know, means a short pause. Abolishing it we are left with full speed, decrease of speed (with a comma) and full stop – no pause! I think a Freudian is needed to explain us why pausing is ‘girly’, while all the rest are manly; and if we think that semicolon is ugly, we can change the symbol instead of refusing to pause. Let’s see an example.
“I was going to leave; suddenly he entered the room.” Impossible to use a comma here, we have to choose between a full stop and a pause. The surprise becomes greater, following the silence of a full stop. A pause adds a nuance of indifference, it diminishes the impact of his entering the room. Bringing so close the one’s thought to leave and the other’s appearance in the room, it softens the antithesis: my thought to leave doesn’t matter, since he is now in the room.
The geniuses of the Greek governments some time ago decided to remove from the Greek language the variety of accents, and leave just one sign, above the stressed vowel. One of their arguments (provided by the illiteracy of various ‘progressive’ Greek intellectuals) was that the ancient Greeks didn’t use accents. The ancients wrote only in capital letters, and they wrote without putting spaces between words!, all letters, words, sentences and paragraphs united as if they were all of them a single word!
Ancient Greek culture was extremely based on oral speech and they didn’t pay much attention to writing. Things might have been different if they enjoyed the convenience of paper or of a computer, but the fact is that oral speech determined their thinking – and oral speech tends to unite the words and express the distinctions with differences in the colours and dynamics of a voice. Our culture is based on written speech, and we need all of these symbols and spaces and accents in order to give to our paper-expression something of the strength that it lacks compared with oral speech. Written words are already poor enough, they don’t need our help for that. The battle of the semicolon, where semicolon is rather defeated for the moment, belongs to a group of similar battles, by which we damage our thinking.
Cf. at Salon: Is the semicolon girlie?