On Writing, Punctuation and Grammar

The Semicolon

This is the first of a new type of regular content you’ll be seeing from me addressing problematic punctuation and some of the more vexing grammar rules. Like weekly writing prompts, these posts will sadly—if only to me—be a departure from song and album titles because, frankly, there just aren’t a lot of songs about punctuation and grammar.

The subject of my debut post in this category is my second favorite punctuation mark—the semicolon (if you really want to know, my favorite punctuation mark is the long dash, aka “em” dash). Many writers are confused by semicolons; they either use this punctuation incorrectly or avoid using it altogether. And that sentence I just wrote, gang, was an example of how to correctly use a semicolon.

The primary function of a semicolon is to join two independent but related clauses into a single sentence, giving both of them equal weight or emphasis. An independent clause is a group of words that, by itself, makes up a complete sentence. In this case, the clause “Many writers are confused by semicolons” is a complete sentence in its own right. So is the second part of my sentence, “they either use this punctuation incorrectly or avoid using it altogether.” Both could be written as sentences by themselves. However, since my point in writing them as one was to convey the connection between these two ideas, I joined them using a semicolon.

Quite often, writers will fuse two clauses together using a comma instead of a semicolon. In the example I gave above, this would look like, “Many writers are confused by semicolons, they either use this punctuation incorrectly or avoid using it altogether.” This is an incorrect but very common use of a comma called a comma splice because you’ve used a comma to combine two independent thoughts instead of separating them into two sentences with a period or using the correct punctuation—a semicolon.

I mentioned that joining two independent clauses was the primary function of a semicolon, but it also has another usage. This may be perplexing, but a semicolon can actually serve the same role as a comma; however, it does so only in one very specific instance. If you have a list of items in a series that are already separated with commas, then you can use a semicolon to separate those series. An example of how to do this is the following: Aside from Alexandria, I have lived in my hometown, Stahlstown, PA; Kent, OH; and Arlington, VA. If I had used only commas in that sentence, it wouldn’t have been clear whether Stahlstown, PA, and my hometown were the same place or two different places.

I hope you’ve found this little piece on punctuation helpful. Keep an eye out for future posts elucidating some of the more confusing elements of grammar and punctuation.

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