Thanks for sharing, Mike – a very interesting article.
When I first started working as an editor I was told to treat semicolons as a way of connecting two discrete but related sentences, the idea being that the semicolon represents a slightly softer break than a full stop (it can be thought of as a hinge between sentences). Thus, the text on either side of a semicolon should function as a complete sentence, and one should be able to replace the semicolon with a full stop without having to make any changes to the text. For me, the strength of this approach is that it gives the semicolon a clear role, and ensures it can’t just be swapped with a colon or dash.
It’s interesting that the article cites Jane Austen as putting the semicolon to “best use”, because in fact Austen uses it in ways other than that which I’ve described, no doubt a reflection of the fact that the ‘rules’ governing semicolon use have changed over time.
I confess to being sceptical of the idea that social media lies at the heart of the semicolon’s decline (although I’d be willing to concede that the prevalence of social media engenders a predilection for shorter sentences). For one thing, if you’re using semicolons correctly they shouldn’t have any effect on the length of your sentences. For another, while the idea that social media and the internet are corroding attention spans (especially in the young) is regularly trotted out, I have yet to see any empirical evidence of it; indeed, a linked article says the decline in semicolon use is “a change researchers put down to more people communicating via social media”. So, in other words, it’s pure conjecture!