Currently the most e-mailed NY Times article is on semicolons. Ha!
I swear I didn't know how to use a semicolon until graduate school, when I suddenly had to teach undergraduates how to use them. I blame the 70's! I went to schools where we didn't study English; we studied "Language Arts" and wrote in journals and watched the movies of all the books we read. I didn't learn a scrap of grammar until I took a foreign language, and punctuation just fell by the wayside. I knew I was ignorant, but I thought I'd get by all right with what I picked up via osmosis. Somehow I didn't absorb the rules for semicolons. I know I'm not the only one.
Once I did learn the rules, I was mad for them! I loved writing sentences of different lengths and with different rhythms; semicolons were a new instrument I could mix it up with. I think of colons as being a right pointing arrow, a kind of LOOKY HERE symbol (before I got comfortable with colons, I used to sprinkle my school notes and journal writing with actual arrows, which served the same purpose. I think I got it from math class). But semicolons are like tape lashing together two separate thoughts: a bit sloppy but indicative of an important if subtle relationship.
But then I read what Vonnegut had to say about them: "First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites* representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college."
And it's true no one ever needs to use a semicolon; a period and a capital will do every time. Semicolons would detract from Vonnegut's voice, which gets so much of its power from its simplicity. But sometimes you don't want to write two separate sentences.
Anyway, that and other similar quotations got me self-conscious about using them. I was pretty spare about using them in my published novel, though a few sneaked in. I was freer with the colons, though. There's nothing frou-frou about a colon! And there's a dash on almost every page. Christ! Almost as bad as exclamation points!
* This blog has nothing but support for transvestites and hermaphrodites!