RE: [Fwd: Re: Avoid the Semicolon in Tech Writing?]

Subject: RE: [Fwd: Re: Avoid the Semicolon in Tech Writing?]
From: "Anameier, Christine A - Eagan, MN" <christine -dot- a -dot- anameier -at- usps -dot- gov>
To: <eric -dot- dunn -at- ca -dot- transport -dot- bombardier -dot- com>, <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 18 Aug 2003 14:50:10 -0500

Eric Dunn wrote:
> . . . if the difference between the two sentences is important
> enough to underline, you've failed your job because semicolon
> deficient readers will miss the 'hidden' information. If the
> is not critical the semicolon construct is not required.

In the example I gave, using the semicolon gives the readers a subtle
cue that some will catch and some will miss. Obviously this is not a
communication tactic I would depend on for truly critical information.
But as a way to reinforce something that's already implied or stated in
the text, it's useful. The more tools we have to keep readers on the
path, the better.

Is the semicolon construct "required"? Of course not. But that doesn't
mean it isn't useful and valuable. "Not required" does not imply "don't
do it."

> In the example given, what kind of self respecting documentation
> would use such a construct? Flow charts, organigrams, tables, or
> lists will get the reader to the information they need, when they need

I use plenty of bulleted lists and tables, plus the occasional
flowchart. But there are times when a brief explanation is warranted.

> The average user does not want to infer the relationships. They want
> to be told point blank what the relationships and functions are.

Most of the time, sure. But in the example I gave, this approach would
yield something like:

"The Foo department handles incoming calls from customers with
non-policy-related questions about the Whizbo application. If those
customers have questions that are related to policy, the Foo department
redirects those customers' calls to the Bar department, and the Bar
department handles those calls."

Dunno about you, but I think this version is more concise and perfectly
"The Foo department handles incoming calls about the Whizbo application;
policy questions are redirected to the Bar department."

If you ran across that sentence, and we weren't in the middle of this
heated semicolon debate, I'll bet you wouldn't notice a problem.

> The semicolon constructs seem suited to long-winded novel length
> descriptive text.

Um, the example above is shorter *with* the semicolon.

> . . . to avoid having high fallooting writers writing over the heads
> some readers a ban on semicolons may indeed be in order.

Gosh, if I were the thin-skinned type I'd think you were disparaging me
and my work.

You asked, rhetorically, "what does it really mean in the case of
technical documentation." The reason this stuff matters is that some
writers would like to prevent the rest of us from using what we feel is
a valuable tool. Look, I'm not trying to force you to use semicolons;
I'd just like to have the option to use them without having somebody
slap me with a style guide that assumes (a) my readers are going to be
derailed by a semicolon and/or (b) I don't know how to use a semicolon


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