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The Semicolon

Tasked this week with explaining how to properly use a semicolon, I thought immediately of the poster designed by the…

Tasked this week with explaining how to properly use a semicolon, I thought immediately of the poster designed by the fellow behind web comic The Oatmeal. He’s done a number of grammar posters, and there’s very little I could add to the explanation he offers. I’ll summarize, but for some colorful examples, be sure to check out his post.

There are really only two times when a semicolon is called for:

  • When you wish to show a close relationship between two statements that could stand alone as complete sentences. The semicolon indicates that the statements are more closely related than a period would indicate. The Oatmeal recognizes a subset of this case that occurs when you’d be inclined to use conjunctions (“and” or “but”) to join such statements but you’re already working with complex statements; the semicolon in this case helps maintain the relationships of the statements while avoiding a run-on sentence.
  • When you’re making complex lists whose constituents are either themselves very complex or contain commas. Using the semicolon to separate the complex items keeps the commas within the complex items from being confused with the punctuation separating the complex items.

If you’re inclined to use a semicolon under any other circumstances, think twice, consult the poster, and use the punctuation carefully. You should also use it fairly judiciously. If you find yourself using it very frequently, you may want to consider rethinking how you’ve structured your thoughts or simplifying some of your sentences.

Having mastered the semicolon, maybe you have other grammar questions. Leave a note in the comments, and if a topic strikes my fancy, I’ll address it in a future post.

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  1. I think I overuse the semicolon; I shouldn’t, but I find myself doing it; time and time again. I think it’s because semicolons are so damn attractive. I also think my jumbled up mind is just that, jumbled. Perhaps you may do a piece on commas; I overuse those as well. Thanks.

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  2. The best part about english is how much of a whore it is. The language is always changing, and because there is no one central point of control for it, unlike French for example, the people who use it can modify it over time. Everything in the language is without anchor and ripe for drift. We change words, coin new ones, ignore grammar, and even syntax itself is up for grabs. People complain about the misuse of apostrophes, or using numbers as digits instead of numbers as words, or even what the hell you are supposed to do with that damned semicolon.

    Why not just roll with the changes and see where the errors take you? English is evolving and you can’t have evolution without mutation, and mutation is just fortunate error. Go for the gold. Screw punctuation, violate capitalization rules, verb your nouns and noun your verbs. Give lexicographers heart attacks; It keeps them spry and on their toes.

    And if you notice a spelling error or a grammar error, guess what? I don’t care. Neither does English, the whore.

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  3. I absolutely love The Oatmeal and was planning on showcasing his grammar posters on the writing section of my blog. I never understood semicolons until I saw that hilarious poster!

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  4. The best part about english is how much of a whore it is. The language is always changing, and because there is no one central point of control for it, unlike French for example, the people who use it can modify it over time. Everything in the language is without anchor and ripe for drift. We change words, coin new ones, ignore grammar, and even syntax itself is up for grabs. People complain about the misuse of apostrophes, or using numbers as digits instead of numbers as words, or even what the hell you are supposed to do with that damned semicolon.

    Why not just roll with the changes and see where the errors take you? English is evolving and you can’t have evolution without mutation, and mutation is just fortunate error. Go for the gold. Screw punctuation, violate capitalization rules, verb your nouns and noun your verbs. Give lexicographers heart attacks; It keeps them spry and on their toes.

    And if you notice a spelling error or a grammar error, guess what? I don’t care. Neither does English, the whore.

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    1. I agree. It’s worse than a new version of Windows. Always gotta look for the mistakes, which are just bound to change come the new version 3 years later. Tough and I teach EFL. I call it teaching simplified English and it is compared to what I had to go through when I was at school.

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  5. Sweet! I’ve used semicolons the second way because I wasn’t sure how to deal with complex lists with internal commas. I’m pretty excited to know I was using them correctly :-)

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  6. I would like to see a post on when to use ‘:’ and when to use ‘-’ . For example, can we use both, ‘The best car in the world: Tesla’ or ‘The best car in the world – Tesla’. I always have this confusion while creating a title for my posts.

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    1. I think this is probably mostly a matter of personal style. In a title, I would be more likely to use a colon, in the article itself a dash. I like to use the colon as a way not merely of suggesting a close link between two sentences but as a way of showing something like cause and effect between the first and the second.

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  7. Oh – another WordPress daily post about grammar or punctuation. Who the hell cares? What’s important is whether the blogger communicates what she/he wants to communicate – ‘correct’ isn’t important. In the classroom, where I used to teach it, of course it’s important. But here, not a jot. Oh dear, started with a conjunction, no verb, no subject, no … yeah, yeah, yeah …

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    1. Lots of people care, it turns out. You’re right that communicating what you’re trying to say is what’s really important, though. Some people do want to know what’s considered standard, and my posts are aimed at them. (Occasionally I tell people when it’s ok to break what they think are hard and fast rules, by the way. And even leading usage experts say that it’s fine to start a sentence with a conjunction.)

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      1. You are right that lots of people care Daryl. Many in our society seem to no longer value good grammar and good writing. I’ve often made a hobby of occasionally mocking poor writing, but now there is so much of it out there that it’s become like mocking a serious epidemic.

        Plus, I think complaining about someone offering well-put and useful suggestions about good writing is a lot like whining that one has too much money.

        In the future, perhaps you’d like to conquer the ellipsis, which I’m afraid I’ve been guilty of misusing. (sorry for that awkwardly written last sentence, by the way.)

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  8. Sometimes if I use a full stop, it is like the inflection of the voice going down. Too many of them and the article sounds leaden. If I use a semicolon it doesn’t; the sound carries on in my mind higher; I prefer that. I was avoiding the comma-splice, and using the semi-colon correctly.

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  9. And- I know that it is absolutely OK to split infinitives, people do it all the time, but it still bugs me and a lot of others. So I would prefer “How to use a semicolon properly”, and generally not splitting infinitives unless avoiding them is clunky.

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  10. I find it amazing how many questions there are about when to use a semicolon. I do my best to teach this to my students and we are in fact reviewing its use for ACT Prep.

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  11. “If you’re inclined to use a semicolon under any other circumstances; think twice, consult the poster, and use the punctuation carefully.”

    It may be wrong, but that’s what I would have done if I wanted to omit the word, “then.”

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      1. From about(dot)com:

        “Colons (:)

        Use a colon to set off a summary or a series after a complete main clause:

        It is time for the baby’s birthday party: a white cake, strawberry-marshmallow ice cream, and a bottle of champagne saved from another party.
        (Joan Didion)”

        “[When] you’re inclined to use a semicolon under any other circumstances: think twice, consult the poster, and use the punctuation carefully.”

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    1. Alas, your opening clause there isn’t independent and so can’t stand alone in front of a semicolon. Remember, the things on either side of it have to stand alone as complete sentences (unless you’re just separating a complex list), and here you would introduce a fragment. The comma is acceptable where you’ve placed the semicolon, and the “then” is optional in either case.

      Note that in Didion’s colon example, the part before the colon is also a complete sentence. Your rewrite is a fragment followed by a list and is generally not considered the correct way to use a colon.

      As another commenter above said, though, it’s really all about communicating what you mean to say. No native speaker of English is going to misunderstand what you’re saying here, and if you’re satisfied with the way it reads, then it’s probably ok (provided you’re not worried about what the grammar cranks will have to say about it!). :)

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      1. But you can use the colon even with incomplete sentences:

        “Colon Used to Further Explain or Introduce a List

        Further Explanation with a List: Mary’s dinner consisted of the following: salad, soup, chicken, and toast.”

        Mary’s dinner consisted of the following is incomplete by itself.
        But I agree–it may be easier to read, but it’s still seems wrong with the colon/semicolon. I just remember learning that you should use semicolons if you have too many commas in a sentence.

        I’m a grammar nazi who’s prone to making grammatical errors.

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      2. So the thing here is that the “the following” construction is elliptical. There’s an implicit ending that makes the sentence understood to be complete. What you’re saying is “Mary’s dinner consisted of the following items,” but the “items” word is made redundant by the list that does in fact follow. Or, I suppose you could explicitly say “the following items.” In fact, I like that better now that you bring it up. :)

        You can use a semicolon if you have too many commas and are using them to splice complete sentences together with those commas. But the semicolon isn’t in general a simple stand-in for commas in complex sentences. If you’re writing sentences with this problem, it’s probably best to consider restructuring some of them.

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    1. This is surely the case in more formal writing. In less formal writing, when I’m just stringing a bunch of related things together without worrying too much about style, I’ll sometimes do it, though.

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  12. “I wonder why I ever bothered with sex, he thought; there’s nothing in this breathing world so gratifying as an artfully placed semicolon.” –Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

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  13. I was once told that a semicolon is acceptable as long as the sentence before it was complete; the sentence after it was irrelevant. I thought that explanation was untrue, but didn’t argue. Thanks for confirming my understanding that both sentences must be complete in order to properly use a semicolon.

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  14. The oatmeal is a complete meal. It has grammar lessons, cats and healthy amount of funny made-up curse words. Yum! :D

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