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Old 12-03-2011, 11:10 AM
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Default Semicolons


Originally written by Andrew Braun



Prepare to begin the epic journey into the electrifying world of semicolons! Orbiting around the Sun of Punctuation, just a few light-years from Planets Comma and Period, Semicolon is a relatively underdeveloped world, generally inhabited by a class of grammatical elite and a few literary stars. Its atmosphere is a little thick, but easily breathable to any who take the trouble to accustom themselves to the air.

So why's this paradisaical patch of the punctuation universe so neglected? One reason is because it’s a somewhat confusing thing to use, and even people who do know how to use it usually only employ it for one or two of its most common applications. The other reason is that it’s a superfluous piece of grammar. You never absolutely have to use it, like you do a period or a comma; it’s always a choice of flow and style. Plus, using it is a surefire road to seeming more sophisticated (meaning that people will think you know what the heck you’re doing). A disclaimer: Most of the time you should start a new sentence! Semicolon abuse is not a pretty thing!Use them as spice, not substance.
The point of this article is twofold—to introduce the uninitiated into the joys of semicolons and to give the old hands a few new tricks. After this article is through, you’ll be ready to impress the aristocracy of Planet Semicolon and land yourself a cushy little nook in that corner of Grammar Galaxy. I could say, “Strap in and get ready to blast off,” but that would be a little cheesy, right? So I won’t say it. But keep a firm grip on your socks lest they get rocked off.



The semicolon links two independent clauses


Most commonly the semicolon is used this way. Independent clauses are a whole other lesson, but for now you can just keep in mind that an independent clause is a complete thought. An entire sentence—it doesn’t need anything else to make it stand up. This sentence would be an example. Now here’s the difference between commas and semicolons: commas never, ever separate two independent clauses. Well, I shouldn’t say never, because you can break just about any rule in the name of adding drama to your writing, but it’s never grammatically correct. Example time:

Using a comma (Wrong): We'd better get out of here, the excessively large carnivorous squirrel is coming!


Using a semicolon (Right): We'd better get out of here; the excessively large carnivorous squirrel is coming!


The clauses can be connected in different ways; there is always an alternative to the semicolon. The end is near; all things shall soon fade away could become The end is near, and all things shall soon fade away or The end is near. All things shall soon fade away.To use a semicolon to connect two of these phrases, eliminate the coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, so) and any commas and put a semicolon in there instead. Coordinating conjunctions are the more commonplace method of connecting independent clauses; semicolons are the more classy path to take. (That could become Coordinating conjunctions are the more commonplace method of connecting independent clauses, but semicolons are the more classy path to take.)


Keep in mind that the second independent clause should be (a) continuing or completing the idea of the first independent clause and/or (b) related to the first independent clause in some manner. Connecting unrelated ideas with a semicolon just looks plain silly. Watch out for squirrels; I hate astrophysics. Of course, confusion or humour might be the point, in which case, connect all the unrelated ideas you please.

Semicolons connect clauses with transitional phrases



Basically an expansion on the first rule. Certain words, called conjunctive adverbs, are very effective at connecting independent clauses, as are some other phrases. Grammar is a wide world; therefore, feel free to experiment with what feels good to you. Consequently, however, moreover, therefore, otherwise, for example, as a result, and so-on and so-forth are all conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases you can use.

Examples:

I broke a mirror while walking under a ladder; consequently, I died.

Last Friday the Thirteenth I opened an umbrella indoors; moreover, the umbrella had a black cat in it.

Semicolons help in lists!

Everybody knows that you use commas to make lists, right? Two cups flour, ten cups salt, eye of newt, a tablespoon of corn starch....Well, what if the items themselves have commas in them? Confusion sets in! Oh no! We’ll have to enlist Mr. Semicolon to help in the list! Groan. Puns aside, let’s say you have something like this:

The answers are: October third, 1955, Hell, Oregon, Paul Gilbert, a great guitarist, life, the universe, and everything.

What was that? Is Hell a place in Oregon, or are those separate answers? Is Paul Gilbert a great guitarist, or is great guitarist something different completely? Semicolons clear this up:


The answers are: October third, 1955; Hell, Oregon; Paul Gilbert, a great guitarist; life, the universe, and everything.

Does that make more sense? Good! (I assume you just pounded your fist on your desk and yelled, “Hallelujah!”) The rule for this one is very simple: just punctuate each confusing bit with a semicolon instead of a comma as demonstrated above.


This one can be used for a few different things: You can use it to separate items that are long and need that extra stopping power, to make lists within lists—please use this power wisely—and to keep your writing from becoming listless.

Sorry. Couldn’t help it.

Connecting things that are just too darn long

Long things can be confusing. Long division, long hair, long lists of confusing things... but our friend, the semicolon, is here to help with that! The rules aren’t concrete; I try to stress that in writing, rules can almost always be broken. But you should only attempt breakage when you know how to fix what you've smashed to pieces! Anyway: when your sentence gets too long but would be spoilt by breaking it up, put a semicolon in front of one of your coordinating conjunctions. Like this:

So you think people are crazy, you say, and you think that each and every one of us is insane in his own way, except for Pat Boone, who is absolutely and completely sane, but people who aren’t crazy lack the spice that makes life worth living, and that long, drawn-out sentences are the most sure sign of insanity?

Bah. That confuses even me, and I wrote it. I’m not going to apologise to any Pat Boone fans either. Now, let’s see what the pause lent by a nicely positioned semicolon or two does.



So you think people are crazy, you say, and you think that each and every one of us is insane in his own way, except for Pat Boone, who is absolutely and completely sane; but people who aren’t crazy lack the spice that makes life worth living; and that long, drawn-out sentences are the most sure sign of insanity?

You still have to read it slowly, but now it doesn’t seem like such a big mess!



Whew! You've been introduced to some well-known and a few more arcane usages. Now here’s one to tuck away for a rainy day:

When you have a list—it has to be three or more items—at the end of a sentence that’s already complete, and a transitional phrase, like that is, for example, and other “I’m going to show you something related” phrases, you can use either a comma or a semicolon. It’s a taste matter, but I recommend trying the semicolon on for size because it denotes more of a pause. For example:

Keith had everything he needed, but there were a few things he wanted, for instance, a nicer house, a beautiful wife, some fresh ice cream, and to be alive again.
Keith had everything he needed, but there were a few things he wanted; for instance, a nicer house, a beautiful wife, some fresh ice cream, and to be alive again.

That’s one of those occasions where a period is too much and a comma seems like too little—though it is technically enough.

Congratulations! You’ve landed on Planet Semicolon. Do make free use of its resources; eliminate a few coordinating conjunctions and start up your own little grammar farm. If any aliens show up, please set your punctuation to stun; we don't want to accidentally start an interstellar war by using over-powerful grammar!



Hey, stranger things have happened.

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