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Life-Saving Punctuation

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Image courtesy The Semicolon Project

You can tell that a semicolon is a dangerous tool in unskilled hands. That bullet on top, that sharp curved blade on the bottom portend trouble. It’s “the most feared punctuation on earth,” The Oatmeal website warns, before explaining how to use it.

And it isn’t really needed anyhow; you can always find some other punctuation to do the job. Put a semicolon in the wrong place, and it shatters a sentence into fragments. No wonder some authorities advise amateur writers to avoid semicolons altogether.

So why are people all of a sudden inking or tattooing semicolons on their wrists?

To prevent suicide, of course.

It was news to me. Here’s an explanation from the website of the Semicolon Movement on Tumblr:

“The semicolon is used when a sentence could have ended, but didn’t.

“The movement is for anyone who has ever self-harmed, has a personality disorder, or has tried to commit suicide. The semicolon is a sign of hope. Your sentence is not over yet. …

“If you have ever harmed yourself, attempted suicide, or just want to support the cause, put a semicolon on your wrist or wherever you feel would mean the most. Every time you see it, think of something that makes life worth living.”

You can find explanations like these, and numerous illustrations of semicolons decorating arms and wrists, on Facebook and Pinterest, as well as Tumbler. And there’s a website for The Semicolon Project, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting hope, help, and support to the people and communities suffering from mental-health issues. We are here to address depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction, and suicide.”

The website announces a special day: “On April 16, 2014, everyone who self-harms, is suicidal, depressed, has anxiety, is unhappy, going through a broken heart, just lost a loved one, etc., draw a semicolon on your wrist. A semicolon represents a sentence the author could’ve ended, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life.”

If you haven’t noticed this, you’re not alone. It seems to be a very recent Internet phenomenon, having begun barely a year ago. But it’s apparently catching on. On Facebook, the Semicolon Project has more than 12,000 likes.

And it’s quite an idea. Punctuation will never be the same again.

Update, 3/31/2014: A quotation from Kurt Vonnegut that some readers found offensive has been removed from this post. The Chronicle and Allan Metcalf apologize for the unintended slur and thank the commenters who called our attention to it.

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