According to Vonnegut, it only shows "you've been to college." But I like me some semicolons. And I have been to college where I majored in English. That probably makes me the only person interested in this...From Ben Blatt, writing in Slate.
Do Semicolons Make You Pretentious?
For the purposes of this article, I decided to take a quick approach that is slightly less anecdotal than just glossing over the authors above. I created two samples. The first was all 36 Pulitzer Prize winners published between 1980-2016 (this is 36 books instead of 37 because there was no winner in 2012). I then looked at the Publisher’s Weekly best-selling novel of the year from 1980-2016 (this too was 36 books as I removed Diary of a Wimpy Kid since its only intended audience is young children).
These are small samples, with some repeat authors, but the results are still clear. The Pulitzer Prize winning books use a median of 129 semicolons per 100,000 words. The best-selling novels use a median of 86 semicolons per 100,000 words.
The 50 percent difference between the two samples may not be surprising, but I think they echo Vonnegut’s point. The most accessible writers often do not use many semicolons. If you are writing with simple sentence structure you don’t need them.
While semicolons are more present in the Pulitzer winners on the whole, it's not a necessary condition to have them to appeal to literary circles. Some writers, like Larry McMurtry’s whose Pulitzer Prize winning Lonesome Dove had almost 650 semicolons per 100,000 words, choose to use them often; others, like Cormac McCarthy who a Pulitzer for The Road without using a single semicolon, choose to follow Vonnegut's advice and avoid them.