I have an unfortunate addiction, to something most writers use very sparingly. I am addicted to the semicolon. Honestly, how often do you see a semicolon in most pieces of fiction? I use at least one for every story, blog post, and chapter. I say, “at least one”, but I’m minimizing the hold this tiny punctuation mark has on me. My beta readers despair, and my editor patiently makes repeated suggestions on how to replace ninety-five percent of the semicolons I’ve used. So we’re going to study this devious, little piece of punctuation together.
The most basic description/explanation of the semicolon I can find comes in two points.
1. It can be used to replace “and”, or other conjunctions, when linking one complete sentence to another.
2. It can be used to separate complicated items, listed in a sentence.
Let’s look at the first point in more detail.
Uh oh! Two complete sentences? So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all this time! I’ve been using the semicolon as kind of a long pause between a complete sentence, and an elaboration on the sentence. I was wrong. Unless the original sentence and the elaboration can stand alone, as a logical, complete sentence, the semicolon should be a comma.
The two sentences thus joined should be a cause and effect situation, or a comparison. In either case, the sentences must be clearly related in subject.
Let’s look at a few examples.
You could write: “The doctor ordered several x-rays, but there were no broken bones.”
Or you could write: “The doctor ordered several x-rays: there were no broken bones.”
Both versions of the sentence are correctly punctuated.
You could write: “The girl’s bicycle was red, and her helmet was blue.”
Or: “The girl’s bicycle was red; her helmet was blue.”
Again, both versions are acceptable.
So, when is it not acceptable. According to what I’ve researched and confirmed by “Webster’s New World Punctuation”, if the two parts of the sentence are not clearly and logically connected, a semicolon is not appropriate.
A reasonable example of this would be: “The girl’s bicycle was black; the sun was beginning to set.” The relationship between the black bicycle and the sunset is not clear, making this an improper use of the semicolon.
This is better: “The girl’s bicycle was black, making it difficult to see in the dark; the sun was beginning to set.”
This is best: “The girl’s bicycle was black, making it difficult to see in the dark. The sun was beginning to set.
Some writers might attempt to link those last two sentences with a comma. That would be an error. Using a comma to connect two complete sentences is comma-splicing, resulting in run-on sentences. If both parts could be a complete sentence on their own, a semicolon or conjunction are the proper choices.
Now this may seem like a dry blog to some of you, but I’m relearning this material as I’m writing, so I hope you’ll bear with me. We have one more example of this first point to cover. A semicolon may precede a connection adverb, (therefore, then, next etc.), but again, only if the two parts can function independently as sentences, and are clearly related in subject matter.
Here’s an example of the correct usage:
“Sally didn’t get her homework done on Friday; therefore, she wasn’t allowed to go to the party on Saturday night.”
Without the semicolon, the two parts must be separated into two sentence. (A side note: the comma following the adverb is considered a matter of style, not necessity.)
The second part of the definition of a semicolon is much simpler. When writing a sentence with several, complicated items listed, a semicolon serves to distinguish the items as separate entities. Let me give a clearer picture of this phenomenon: “Chad’s suitcase was packed with a large, blue beach towel; a crisply ironed, white dress shirt; one pair of black trousers; one, blue pair of shorts; one, red T-shirt; two pair of socks; one pair of sandals; one pair of dress shoes; a yellow Speedo and one bottle of sunscreen.” If a comma were used to separate the items in Chad’s suitcase, the reader would get hopelessly lost. If your sentence includes even one item with a comma in the description, the semicolons are required to divide the items.
The semicolon does one more, dastardly thing to confuse readers and writers, alike. When it’s used to join two sentences, where the first ends in parenthesis or quotation marks, the semicolon is place outside of the parenthesis or quotation marks. What a sneaky little semicolon; no wonder it’s so seldom used!
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