The semicolon – an enigmatic punctuation mark. It has long been a source of controversy. It’s been revered by writers like Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen for its nuanced pause. But others, from Kurt Vonnegut to Edgar Allan Poe, have scoffed at its perceived pretentiousness. Now, even time itself may be catching up with this tricky symbol. Researchers report a 25% decline in its use in British fiction over the past 30 years.

This isn't the first semicolon sunset. Ben Blatt's 2017 analysis showed a 70% drop in its use between 1800 and 2000. This sent shivers down the spines of punctuation purists worldwide. But for those who find its presence cumbersome, an alternative is available. After all, doesn't the dash do the same job, with far less baggage?

Yet, the decline of the semicolon tells a deeper story. It reflects a shift in our relationship with time and thought. It was born in the Renaissance, a time of exploration and contemplation. The semicolon embodied pause and reflection. It held spaces for ideas to breathe. For connections to bloom between them. In Woolf's words, it was a "pronounced pause". A moment to savour the bittersweet chiming of Big Ben's "irrevocable hour."

But our digital age is a whirlwind of immediacy. Scrolling feeds. Fleeting tweets. Truncated headlines demand speed and clarity. This leaves little room for lingering nuances. The dash, with its decisive slash, becomes the perfect punctuation for our age. It rushes us forward, offering no space for ambiguity or hesitation. It takes us straight to the point. 

This shift isn't just about efficiency — it reflects a cultural change. Complexity is often equated with difficulty. The simple path of the dash becomes the preferred route. We value brevity, immediacy, and clarity. We prioritise connection. 

The loss of the semicolon, then, is a loss of a certain kind of thinking. But to declare the semicolon extinct would be premature. While its use may be waning, its essence still lingers. Current writers haven't forgotten the power of the pause. 

Maybe this pause isn't disappearing, but finding new forms in the digital landscape. Perhaps its spirit lives on in the ellipsis, the careful line break, or the thoughtful emoji. Maybe, in the age of brevity, the rare use of a semicolon holds more power.

Let's keep these sparks of contemplation alive. Whether through the deliberate choice of a semicolon or the quiet space between the lines. In the end, it's not about the symbol itself. It's the richness of thought and experience it invites us to hold, however fleetingly, within the pauses of our ever-hastening lives.

Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable and has been building websites since the early 90s. He’s one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.