Avoid the semicolon in tech writing?

Subject: Avoid the semicolon in tech writing?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>, 'Janet Vega' <anutha_writer -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 18 Aug 2003 08:50:38 -0400

Janet Vega reports: <<I recently read a Style Guide from another company
with which I was previously unfamiliar. In it, it
stated that the semicolon is to be avoided in technical communication since
one can almost always make two shorter sentences using a period.>>

It's certainly true that all else being equal, a semicolon _can_ mark the
presence of a more complex sentence. But the problem isn't inherently with
the semicolon, but rather with the sentence construction. Looking for
sentences that contain semicolons will help you spot some complex sentences,
but (a) not all sentences with semicolons are particulary complex and (b)
you can create an impossibly complex sentence without resorting to a
semicolon. A skillfully used semicolon draws no attention to itself, just
like any other punctuation.

For low-literacy audiences, the more important point is to avoid complex
sentences, whether or not they are created by means of a semicolon. It's
also true, rather unfortunately, that many writers simply don't have any
idea how to use a semicolon correctly, and perhaps they should simply avoid
using it--so long as they don't replace it with commas, which is worse. The
problem is with the writer, not the punctuation.

So the recommendation to avoid semicolons is one of those "we don't know
anything about our audience and don't trust our writers" pieces of advice
that deserves less respect than the style guide gives it. Attack the
problem, not the punctuation.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
(try ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca if you get no response)
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada

"Wisdom is one of the few things that look bigger the further away it
is."--Terry Pratchett

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