Kate has, in the past, gently discouraged me from getting many more punctuation tattoos. One, she says, seems like it should be plenty. Despite this, I’ve often talked about getting an ampersand, because I like the form of the thing, or a semicolon, because I just frickin’ love using them SO MUCH. The ampersand I suspect Kate would eventually get behind; any time I’ve mentioned the semicolon, though, she’s sighed, put her hand on my shoulder, and told me she loves me. And that any semicolon which appears on my body will most likely be mistaken for freckles.
Stories like this one, though, in the Times, only make me fonder of the thing. Emphasis mine.
It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard exhorting subway riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they get off the train.
“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department,** inserted a semicolon**. The rest of the sentence reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”
Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period, much less in exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.
Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without, as style books advise, that distinct division between statements that are closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a conjunction and more emphatic than a comma.
“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. “Old age is more like a semicolon.”