Thursday, 26 August 2010

Beware of the Semicolon!

There are few errors I see more often when reading people's texts than the incorrect use of a semicolon (;). I physically begin to hurt when I see some of the uses people have for it. I want to scream, rant, eat chocolate and cry - all at once. However, I've decided to educate those in need instead. Even if you are 100% sure that you know how to use the semicolon, please read this anyway. You might be duped.

First of all, the semicolon is not (I repeat: not) the same thing as a colon (:). It cannot be used to introduce a list, e.g. "I saw three things through the window: a bird, a plane and a flying pig." Using a semicolon in this case is wrong. This is the most common error I see. So please, please, just... don't do it. It's bad for my blood pressure!

The semicolon is supposed to be used to connect to independent sentences that are strongly related. If they are is quite up to you - you might choose to use a full stop/period (.) instead. However, using a semicolon doesn't create as long a pause as a full stop does, so the text will "sound" different depending on what punctuation you use. To explain this, read the following sentences and think about how long you pause at each punctuation.

"When I wake up in the mornings, I always lie about in bed feeling sorry for myself. I loathe waking up; it makes me angry. I wonder why people can't just go about their lives at the rate they want, not having to care about schedules and responsibilities."

As you probably could tell, the comma creates a short pause, while the period creates a long pause. The semicolon should be somewhere in the middle. Imagine that I had used a full stop instead of the semicolon. It creates a completely different flow of the text.

Let's return to the first use of the semicolon: connecting two related independent sentences. Firstly, an independent sentence is a sentence that functions on its own (a main clause), e.g. "Bob is tall." A dependent sentence (a sub clause) on the other hand, just sounds weird when left on its own, e.g. "Whenever I see him." That doesn't really mean anything, does it? So, to summarize: weird = sub clause, not weird = main clause. That is a very simplified way to look at it, but then again, I'm not trying to teach you about clauses.

You should note that semicolons shouldn't be used when the second sentence begins with a conjunction. For example: "I love to read, but I still wouldn't read that." You mustn't use a semicolon instead of the comma in this case, even though it would work if you removed the "but".

Unfortunately, there is another rule in relation with the above. When the second sentence begins with a conjunctive adverb, you can use a semicolon. E.g. "I hate fish; yet, I can eat this." or "I don't want to stand out; however, I don't want to be boring either." 

The second use of a semicolon is in lists (though, as I've said before, not to "introduce" lists the way colons do!) where you have items that are already separated by commas. It is a way of making the list clearer. Compare these two sentences: "The characters are: Tom, a lonely young man, Tim, a rich, rude gentleman, Tammy, the woman both Tom and Tim love", "The characters are: Tom, a lonely young man; Tim, a rich, rude gentleman; Tammy, the woman both Tom and Tim love." In the first list it is unclear how many characters there actually are, and nothing indicates that Tom in the lonely young man, while in the second list this is clear.

I hope I have cleared up this matter somewhat. However, I strongly urge you not to use the semicolon at all if you are unsure. It is always better not to use it than to use it incorrectly; however, it is also very easy to use it incorrectly. Therefore, please, for my health as much as the sake of your writing: take care when using the semicolon!

For a slightly more abbreviated, but definitely more entertaining, description of the semicolon, visit The Oatmeal.

By the way, if any Swedish readers are wondering, these rules also apply to Swedish.

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