Has modern life killed the semicolon?
Yet in 1848 Edgar Allan Poe declared himself “mortified” by printers once again using too many semicolons. Poe may have the distinction of being the last writer to complain of the semicolon’s popularity. By 1865, grammarian Justin Brenan could boast of “The rejection of the eternal semicolons of our ancestors. … The semicolon has been gradually disappearing, not only from newspapers, but from booksâ€”insomuch that I believe instances could now be produced, of entire pages without a single semicolon.”
Researcher Paul Bruthiaux notes the steepest semicolon drop-off came in the mid-19th centuryâ€”a finding that matches the gap between Poe’s 1848 complaint and that 1865 “rejection.” Technology is a leading suspect in rapid aesthetic shifts, so consider what debuted in the 1850s that might radically change language usage: the telegraph.
Poe’s 1848 comment came just three years before the founding of Western Union. The next decade saw lines strung across the country to create what science writer Tom Standage fittingly dubs the “Victorian Internet.” And that’s precisely when semicolon usage begin to slump.
Perusing telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion. Punctuation was charged at the same rate as words, and their high priceâ€”trans-Atlantic cables originally cost a still-shocking $5 per wordâ€”meant that short, punchy lines with minimal punctuation were necessary among businessmen and journalists.