Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Thomas, George Will, & Me: Great Minds Think Alike; or, Kurt Vonnegut, Go Fly a Kite

Semicolon (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Public domain.


 Abraham Lincoln

“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.”
Abraham Lincoln

Lewis Thomas

Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
Lewis Thomas, M. D.

Kurt Vonnegut

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” 
 Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

George Will

Semicolons . . . signal, rather than shout, a relationship. . . . A semicolon is a compliment from the writer to the reader. It says: “I don’t have to draw you a picture; a hint will do.”
George Will

Kathy Waller

I love semicolons.

My master’s thesis was rife with them.

But my critique group says I mustn’t use them any more. They say I should follow Kurt Vonnegut’s rule.

Mr. Vonnegut is wrong. The semicolon is not a transvestite hermaphrodite, representing absolutely nothing.

It is a compliment from the writer to the reader.

It is a wooden bench, where you can sit for a moment, catching your breath.

It’s a useful little chap.

When Mr. Vonnegut called the semicolon a transvestite hermaphrodite–well, bless his heart, he must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.



8 thoughts on “Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Thomas, George Will, & Me: Great Minds Think Alike; or, Kurt Vonnegut, Go Fly a Kite

  1. Kathy, the “rule” that says don’t use semicolons is like all the other so-called rules of writing; they should be kept by an open window so you can toss them out when you need or want to.


    1. Earl, I have to admit that I did slip a semicolon into a story recently and no one noticed. Starting out, I was told to lose the semicolons and the long sentences because readers couldn’t handle them. I replied, snarkily and to myself, that I hoped to attract readers literate enough to read those sentences. But my critics had a point. So I transferred most of my semicolons to emails, where correspondents can just deal with them.

      Thanks for your comment. I hope to see you soon?


    1. Thank you, Kaye. But did you see that Earl said I could toss out the rule if I needed or wanted to? I’ve become so accustomed to not using semicolons that I don’t miss them so much now. But once in a while, when I write two sentences that have that special connection, that little more-than-a-pause-but-less-than-a-full-stop feeling, sentences that cry out to be linked by a semicolon, and I drop in that period instead–well, I practically have to breathe into a paper bag to keep from hyperventilating. For some of us, punctuation is a very emotional issue.


  2. Kathy and Kaye, I’ve used semicolons occasionally in non-fiction, but you know what? More and more, I’m using a dash instead. To me, a dash is more dramatic and shouts, “Hold on! I’m not finished with this thought yet. Here’s more.”


    1. I like to use dashes, too. But on the first essay I wrote in college, the English professor scrawled that too many dashes can be boring. I’m sure I had used them liberally. Anyway, every time I put in a dash, I think about that warning and look around to see how many others I’ve used in the same vicinity. It’s sort of a punctuation paranoia.


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