The full quotation makes it pretty clear he wasn't serious.
For many writers, picking your favorite punctuation mark is a bit like picking your favorite child. All of them can move you to awe with their power and finesse, and all of them can frustrate and disappoint you with their weaknesses. Don’t you dare speak ill of them. Any of them.
That’s why I was surprised when I first saw Kurt Vonnegut throwing shade at the semicolon. His quotation is usually presented in isolation, like this:
First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
Aside from the puzzling and seemingly offensive putdown of “transvestite hermaphrodites” and my memories of being taught about semicolons in grade school rather than college, I couldn’t imagine that any talented writer would so universally dismiss an entire punctuation mark.
Not one to take things at face value, I went searching and quickly found that the Vonnegut quotation, so often offered with a giddy air of insider superiority, is taken out of context. Here's the next line:
And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I'm kidding.
The way he delivers the line, it’s still not clear whether he’s saying he was kidding or simply saying that he’ll warn us in the future when he is kidding, but at the least, it casts doubt on his meaning. A further reading of the essay casts more significant doubt because he goes on to disparage indigenous storytellers:
I started going to the library in search of reports about ethnographers, preachers, and explorers—those imperialists—to find what sorts of stories they’d collected from primitive people. It was a big mistake for me to take a degree in anthropology anyway, because I can’t stand primitive people—they’re so stupid.
And then he went on to disparage Shakespeare:
Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho [a tribe of Native Americans].
At this point, it should be clear that it is probably a good idea to take any advice in Vonnegut's essay with a grain of salt—or at least not to take it literally. He seems like he’s being hyperbolic. He ends any lingering doubt when he uses a semicolon later in the essay and then writes,
And there, I’ve just used a semicolon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.
So it goes.
Vonnegut's style didn't need a lot of semicolons
Vonnegut’s novels aren’t dripping with semicolons, but semicolons aren’t absent either, and he even uses them when he could have used something else. Here’s an example from page 15 of Cat’s Cradle. In it, Vonnegut uses semicolons in a way that isn’t considered standard: he uses them to separate items in a series where normally a writer would use commas. Here’s the sentence:
Only I was going to kindergarten; Frank was going to junior high; and Father was going to work on the atom bomb.
Semicolon frequency is more a matter of style than rules. Vonnegut favored a simple writing style and short sentences, which limits the need for semicolons. The same is true of Frank McCourt. Semicolons are sparse in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography, Angela’s Ashes, for example.
Many great writers use semicolons
Other notable authors use more semicolons.
The second sentence of The Luminaries (winner of the Man Booker Prize) by Eleanor Catton is a beastly 127 words, and it contains a semicolon. They’re easy to find throughout the book. Here’s a shorter example that uses the semicolon for one of its standard purposes: to join independent clauses:
He was near trembling with fatigue; he was carrying a leaden weight of terror in his gut; he felt shadowed, even dogged; he was filled with dread.
Flipping through my bookshelf, I had no trouble finding semicolons in Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Eco) and Neuromancer (William Gibson) and found they were quite common in The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) and Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen).
Fiction writing and nonfiction writing are different
The next time someone quotes Vonnegut to you about semicolons, now you know that you can safely ignore the advice, but in the bigger picture, going through these literary examples of semicolons made me realize that it may not be a good idea for writers who aren’t fiction writers to take punctuation advice from those who are fiction writers, no matter how successful or brilliant those fiction writers may be.
Creative writing often eschews the kind of clear and concise prose that is the workhorse of effective nonfiction and business writing. Semicolons usually make their home in long sentences, and short sentences usually work well in business. If you have a 127-word sentence in an e-mail message, job description, or annual report, you should be thinking about how to simplify it or break it up—not thinking about where you should put the semicolon and hoping you’ll win a literary prize.
Although it’s not as dramatic or creative as Vonnegut’s line, my more realistic advice is “Do not use a lot of semicolons at work.”
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
A version of this segment originally appeared in Office Pro magazine.