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Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Skinny on Semicolons

As a writer I am plagued by the whole semicolon problem; I'm always wondering when to use the crazy little blighters. I thought I had a handle on them; it seems I was wrong.

A semicolon is a stronger pause than a comma and a weaker pause than a period. A semicolon usually buffers two chunks of equal grammatical weight such as: items in a complicated list, comparable clauses, or phrases.

***list item; list item; list item***
 Semicolons are handy to have when your involved list already has commas or other punctuation.

I want to see Panic! At the Disco; Pop!; and go to a dinner show when I'm in Las Vegas.

I'm not going to put tape on the cat because it's wasteful and expensive; the cat doesn't appreciate it; and I have to clean up hairy tape if I do.


***independent clause; independent clause closely related in thought*** (my least understood instance) Often you don't need conjunctions such as but, and, and so with a semicolon.

Frequently there are escapee spoons in the bottom of the dishwasher; I can't think how they got there.

Conjunctive adverbs such as consequently, otherwise, furthermore, thus, unfortunately, nonetheless, hence, however, moreover, meanwhile, rather, nevertheless, then, and therefore can't link sentences together by themselves. They need a semicolon.

  Sammy took the trash out this morning; unfortunately, the cat was hiding in the trashcan.

If you don't use the semicolon in this case, you get a comma splice.
Important point: when you use words like however and therefore in the middle of your independent clause, they are preceded and followed by commas. Note the difference.

There is a squirrel sitting on top of the freezer; however, he's merely serving as the lookout.
 
There is a squirrel sitting on top of the freezer; his job, however, is merely to serve as lookout.

If you join independent clauses containing for example, at any rate, on the other hand, or indeed, you'll need a semicolon before and a comma after.

 I wanted to have steak for breakfast; in fact, I wanted buffalo steak and onions.


***phrase; phrase***

For my trip to Antarctica, I'm going to shut off the gas; stop the mail; and give the cat away.

If you forgo the use of a semicolon and use a comma between independent clauses causes a run-on sentence and is called a comma splice:

I frequently run red lights, yellow lights never indicate how long I have before red. (wrong)

The poor little comma is too weak to hold the two sentences together without the aid of conjunctions like and, but, so, nor, yet, or, and for.

A semicolon fixes that problem nicely:
I frequently run red lights; yellow lights never indicate how long I have before red. (Too bad semicolons do nothing for the light situation.)


***When NOT to use a semicolon***

Don't use a semicolon to precede a quotation; use a comma.

Wasn't it Caesar who said; "Et tu Brutae?" (wrong)
Wasn't it Caesar who said, "Et tu Brutae?" (right)

Don't use semicolons between unequal items such as an independent clause/prepositional phrase.

My children would eat Otter Pops until the cows came home; especially the root beer ones. (wrong)
My children would eat Otter Pops until the cows came home, especially the root beer ones. (right)

Don't use a semicolon when hooking up a dependent clause/independent clause.

Although I once said you could have an Otter Pop; that doesn't mean you can devour them every time you see them. (wrong)
Although I once said you could have an Otter Pop, that doesn't mean you can devour them every time you see them. (right)

Don't use semicolons to introduce the list.

I have to go buy; bleach, trash bags, a shovel, and something to remove blood from the floor. (wrong on both levels)
I have to go buy: bleach, trash bags, a shovel, and something to remove blood from the floor. (still a bad idea but the grammar is correct)

Now I have to go through my stinking manuscripts and change everything. Thanks, Scott Foresman. I should have memorized you earlier.

I used the Scott Foresman Handbook for Writers by Maxine Hairston and John J. Ruszkiewicz

5 comments:

  1. As a beginner I went from too many semicolons to too many m dashes--my writing critique group calls it "dashitis" :D Really, our problem is run-on sentences (or at least, my problem tends to be.) I have to say Amen to everything you wrote about semicolons.

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  2. I wonder which grammar style he uses. That's one of the tough things. Being consistent.

    For this one:

    For my trip to Antarctica, I'm going to shut off the gas; stop the mail; and give the cat away.

    I think I'd probably forego the optional comma after the introductory prepositional phrases and used the comma instead.

    And speaking of those commas! Ugh. I had two different editors look at the first 50 pages of ACoP. One liked all the commas, the other did not.

    And we wonder why we can't remember some of the rules! O_o

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  3. Oh, Tristi Pinkston (author and editor) said she prefers people just not to use them if they can't get them right.

    I keep my use very simple. For short, independent and closely related sentences. And for a list where some item already requires a comma.

    I can handle those. =D

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  4. In the "trip to Antarctica" sentence, you don't actually need to omit the comma after the introductory clause in order to change the semicolons to commas in the list items.

    In the case of the "I went to see..." sentence, you don't actually need a semicolon, because there are only two items in the series. All that's needed to join the two is "and" with no punctuation.

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    Replies
    1. Sorry; I should have said "introductory phrase."

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