I love the semicolon. There, I’ve said it. Fun essay about them and the fact that Americans tend to avoid them.
Big deal or not, there is really only one use of the semicolon that is "more or less mandated", says Ben Yagoda, professor of English at the University of Delaware and author of About Town, a monumental account of The New Yorker magazine (whose history is marked by fractious debates over the placement of commas). And that is to separate series elements containing commas (for example, "The cities represented were Albany, New York; Wilmington, Delaware; and Selma, Alabama). The other principal uses, says Yagoda, are discretionary: "That is I might, with total grammatical correctness and without changing my meaning in the slightest, choose any one of the following: 1. 'The book under review is utter hogwash; and that is why it is worth examining.' 2. 'The book under review is utter hogwash, and that is why it is worth examining.' 3. 'The book under review is utter hogwash; that is why it is worth examining.' 4. 'The book under review is utter hogwash. That is why it is worth examining.'" Deciding which of the four to choose is strictly a matter of sound and rhythm, says Yagoda - that is to say, personal style. "Writers who like (consciously or unconsciously) to stop and pause, and/or who are under the influence of Hemingway, choose 4. Those who like balanced rhythms might choose 3. Those aiming for a 'transparent' style might choose 2. And those who are a little bit enamoured with the sound of their own voice might choose 1."
This sounds all very liberal, doesn’t it? But writing is a peevish vocation, and when it comes to “style”, discretion is the mother of ink-stained feuds and rabid factionalism. The semicolon doesn’t just divide sentences into two separate but related clauses; it divides prose writers into two mutually antagonistic camps.