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12/10/2014 09:51 am ET

The Semicolon: Grammar's Most Misunderstood Punctuation Mark

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By Writer's Relief staff:

Today we tackle a subject that has sharply divided writers for generations. Those of you with delicate constitutions may want avert your eyes. For those writers willing to go where many dare not tread, we’re talking about that grammatical black sheep—the semicolon.

Some writers view the semicolon with disdain. American writer Kurt Vonnegut claimed that “all they do is show you’ve been to college.”

And poet Elizabeth Austen wrote: “As for the semicolon call it what it is, a period slumming with the commas, a poser at the bar, feigning liberation with one hand and tightening the leash with the other.”

However, the semicolon is not without its literary fans. Poet Lewis Thomas (quite poetically) enthused, “Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines further on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.”

Even Abraham Lincoln tipped his stovepipe hat to the semicolon: “I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.”

It seems the semicolon isn’t bad, just misunderstood! Let’s take a look at the proper use of semicolons.

Besides being a good way to make a wink-eyed emoticon, what purpose does a semicolon serve?

Semicolons connect ideas that are closely related when you need a pause that is stronger than a comma but weaker than a period.

Here’s how:

If you want to connect two independent clauses, a semicolon eliminates the complete stop between the two statements and replaces it with a moderate pause. Again, use a semicolon when the two main clauses are related in theme (similar or even contrasting each other) and you want to strengthen the bond between them.

Example: Jon quickly rearranged all of his video games; he seemed frazzled.

You can also use a semicolon between two independent clauses when they are linked by a transitional expression (such as however, besides, nevertheless, otherwise, therefore) that introduces a complete sentence.

Example: Eat what you want; however, the plastic fruit is not edible.

If a sentence contains internal punctuation, you can use a semicolon to connect the two clauses and still maintain clarity between the clauses.

Example: When Tim comes over, he usually eats all of the ice cream in the freezer; he really loves ice cream.

If you are listing several items separated by commas—whether it be locations, names, dates, etc.—you can use the semicolon to keep them all in the same sentence and avoid confusion between list items.

Example: Rachel’s favorite television characters include Olivia Benson, a detective of the Special Victims Unit; Debra Morgan, a homicide detective who does not know her brother is a serial killer; and Dr. Maura Isles, a chief medical examiner who has a hard time understanding the living.

Now that we’ve brushed up on the very valid reasons for using a semicolon, we just want to add a few words of caution. Like hot sauce and light sabers, the semicolon should be used judiciously. Rampant use of semicolons in your writing will result in convoluted, long-winded sentences. But with proper use and restraint, semicolons can be a very important gizmo in your grammar tool kit.

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