Grammar Nazi: The Evil Semicolon

Evil MerSemicolon… comma’s evil brother.  They’re like the pressure cookers of punctuation.  You never know when to use them or if you used them right and honestly, they’re just a big pain in the ass.  But don’t worry we’ll get through them together.

So why do we even bother with a semicolon?  Well, basically, to join two independent clauses without using conjunctions (and, but, yet…) and eliminate the pause that a period or comma creates between the two.  Okay, that sounds confusing even to me.  How about a few examples?

Take this sentence: Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.  Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Usually you’d read it something like this: Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. *pause, deep breath*  Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

However, if you use a semicolon it all flows together like this: Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; *little sip of air* wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Now you’re probably saying, okay so why can’t I use a comma?  I know I was.  But if you just throw a comma in where that semicolon is you’d have yourself a comma splice.  And no one wants a comma splice.  However, you could use a comma then a conjunction, but then it would read like this: Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, *slight pause* but wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.  We want to eliminate that pause with the conjunction and that’s what a semicolon does.

Now there’s three main uses to remember for a semicolon.

1. Joining two independent clauses – Use the semicolon when you want to form a relationship between two sentences that could stand alone (typically they will either compare or contrast one another).  The semicolon will strength their relationship and make it more clear.

Example… instead of: The king of hearts is the only king without a mustache.  He often feels lonely due to his condition.

Use: The king of hearts is the only king without a mustache; he often feels lonely due to his condition.

2. Avoiding a comma splice – Instead of using a conjunction or throwing a comma in willy-silly or if you want to remove a conjunction, use a semicolon to join them.

Example… instead of: I stepped on a cornflake.  Now I have become a cereal killer.

Use: I stepped on a cornflake; I have become a cereal killer.

3. To avoid comma confusion – (Here’s my favorite)… When you have a list of things separated by commas, use a semicolon to avoid  comma confusion.  Most of the time you’ll use this with lists that include things like locations, names and dates.

Example: If I had time to travel I’d visit Palm Beach, Florida, home to James Patterson; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, home to Lisa Scottoline; and Chicago, home to Gillian Flynn.

I hope this helps clear up a little confusion with the evil semicolon.  If you want to learn more check out these sites: the oatmeal, Purdue writing lab, and grammar girl.  Good luck and happy writing!

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