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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Semicolon

Last month, I blogged about the proper use of quotation marks.  Several people contacted me asking for a similar post regarding the use of semicolons. Well, here we go!

The semicolon (;)

As always, I'm addressing punctuation used in non-technical, non-academic writing for publication in the United States.  As I mentioned in my post on the quotation mark, there are some differences in conventions from one country to the next.

As opposed to the comma, the semicolon is a fairly easy to get right because it has clear rules. 

I'm only going to discuss the three most common uses of the semicolon.  For a more detailed description, I recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style.

1.  Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences (independent clauses) that are closely related.  A period can be used, but the semicolon strengthens the meaning.  

Correct:      Suzette finished her manuscript today; she had been working on it for a year. 
Correct:      Suzette finished her manuscript today.  She had been working on it for a year.
Incorrect:   Suzette finished her manuscript today, she had been working on it for a year.  
(The third example is a comma splice since the clauses are independent. A big no-no.) 

2.  Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences with a conjunctive adverb (some common conjunctive adverbs are therefore, however, anyway, consequently). 

Correct: Carolyn and Heather received revision suggestions from agents; consequently, they                           are writing like mad.  
Incorrect: Carolyn and Heather received revision suggestions from agents, consequently, they                           are writing like mad.  

The link for conjunctive adverbs in rule 2 above goes into greater detail and gives more examples of correct and incorrect usage. 

What causes problems is that a semicolon is not used when the independent clauses are joined by a conjunction (but, and, or, so nor etc).  A comma is used. 

Correct:     Elana returned to her classroom to retrieve her purse, but her room was locked.
Incorrect:  Elana returned to her classroom to retrieve her purse; but her room was locked. 

3.  Semicolons are used in a series that would usually be separated by commas, but one or more of the items in the series has a comma in it.  

Correct:    Some of my favorite books are Dune, by Frank Herbert; The Summer Guest, by Justin Cronin; and The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield.  

There are other uses for the semicolon, but they occur infrequently and are most often optional.  I recommend the books I referenced at the top of this post if you want to read about the minor uses of semicolons.  

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Mary Lindsey writes paranormal fiction for children and adults. Prior to attending University of Houston Law School, she received a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Drama.

Mary can also be found on her website.


Captain Hook said...

Great post! I hate and never really understood semicolons, so rarely used them.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Mary, great post! I have always struggled with semicolons, and this helps a lot. They still enshroud me with mystery, though. I've heard agents and publishers hate them. That might just be a myth. I choose them carefully. :)