Monday, October 3, 2011

SAVE THE SEMI-COLON (and impress everyone!)

Semi-colons get a bad press. They have been described as the most feared form of punctuation (right up there ahead of apostrophes). Here at the Grammar Gang, we love them: the rules are simple to apply, and when you use them correctly, the outcome will be a tighter and more elegant style. One of us declares that she fell in love with someone because of his masterful use of semi-colons. We're not sure we believe her - but hey! It's worth a try, isn't it?

So let's start by taking a look at the rules for using semi-colons.

Rule #1 Use semi colons to separate lengthy items in a list (especially if those items contain commas), like this:
The shop owner's defence consisted of three specious arguments: he couldn't be expected to use apostrophes correctly because he had been the victim of poor English teachers at school; no-one really valued apostrophes anymore because they were old-fashioned; and apostrophes had no impact on the meaning of a shop sign anyway.

The Grammar Gang includes three self-declared grammar nuts: Andrea Duff, whose commitment to the correct use of commas is legendary; Linda Bergmann, who has been known to attack shop owners who engage in apostrophe abuse; and Lisa Emerson, whose students refer to her as the Semi-Colon Queen.

You can see that in this latter example, it would be very confusing to use commas to separate out the items. So, avoid confusion and use a semi-colon.

Rule #2 Use semi-colons to join two complete sentences that are linked by meaning in some way.
This one is a little more tricky and requires some personal judgement and preference. Consider the following sentences:

She wrote the report in clear, simple prose. It received a positive response from the Board.

The grammar in the sentence above is correct and clear. Both sentences are complete and therefore can work independently. However, if you wanted to imply that the two sentences are related in some way, then use a semi-colon to link them:

She wrote the report in clear, simple prose; it received a positive response from the Board.

Using a semi-colon suggests that because the report was written in clear, simple prose, it received a positive response. Of course you could have written:

Because the report was written in clear, simple prose, it received a positive response from the Board.

But where is the elegance in that? And why use more words than you need to? The use of the semi-colon implies the connection more subtly, and its use makes the sentence more concise.

Some of you may be asking "but couldn't I just use a comma?" The answer is no, you can't use a comma to join two complete sentences: it's not a strong enough piece of punctuation.

Beyond rules

Applying Rule #2 (i.e. choosing to use a semi-colon instead of a full stop or a conjunction) is a matter of taste, discernment and context. Often it's a matter of considering the pace of your writing. Consider the passage below:

She stood in the dark, silent forest. Her heart thudded. She stepped forward. Behind her, something rustled in the trees.

Now try it with semi-colons:

She stood in the dark, silent forest; her heart thudded; she stepped forward; behind her, something rustled in the trees.

Both pieces of writing are grammatically correct. But they achieve a different impression. The pace of the second version is faster, perhaps reflecting the breathlessness of the person in the scene. Which version you prefer will depend on what you want to achieve in your writing.

Images sources from and


Anonymous said...

I would have appreciated this article more if there hadn't been a glaring spelling error in Rule #1! It should be "defense".

Anonymous said...

I agree with 'anonymous' whole-heartetly! Also, "Grammar Queens," you should not start a sentence with a preposition. Yes, putting the comma after it makes it grammatically correct, however, it's still more proper (and professional) to NOT start with a preposition.

Anonymous said...

Defence is correct, it is Britsh-English. Defense is American-English. Both are correct.

Anonymous said...

For Anonymous: I'm glad to see you corrected your own error by considering the fact that "defence" is fine. Your second comment, however, should have had a semi-colon rather than a comma between "correct" and "however." Finally, I did not see any sentence that began with a preposition. Could you have been referring to a conjunction?

J. McGaughan CPS/CAP

Wilmington, DE

Anonymous said...

Whoa! Somebody's wear their underwear too tight today. It can't be the British; they are much too polite!

Carol A. Haymans, CPS/CAP said...

Whoa! You have all turned me off to this site. There are far too many errors and excuses for errors on this site. (By the way, my grammar source states that a comma precedes "and" in a series of three or more. Throughout your site, this is ignored.) Good luck in this site!

David Cox said...

I was going to post a comment about semi-colons, but instead i think I will recommend Henry Hitchings' "The Language Wars". It is an erudite history of conflict about "proper" English, and a corrective to anyone, me included, who gets worried about where prepositions go and ends up writing what Winston Churchill is alleged to have described as "the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put".

lisanz said...

Hi everyone: I'm the person who wrote this blog. I use the spelling "defence" because I'm originally British, and this is the British spelling.

This discussion about "errors" is an interesting one, and I'm thinking we might have a post about this so we can discuss it more fully. What constitutes an "error" and what constitutes an issue of style, preference, impact, or audience engagement? Are some rules inviolable in all circumstances while others might depend on desired impact? In what circumstances might a writer choose to disregard rules that would be inflexible in a professional context? What does an author do when two possible rules apply to the same sentence regarding punctuation?

This is part of a sophisticated discussion of language usage, and it would be fun to discuss this more fully.

shubhangi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Terrie said...

The source of the dinosaur images is actually

Andrea Duff said...

Quite a nice site, too, Terrie. Many thanks for this. It underscores the point I made in an earlier post about reusability of images on the net, and how it is sometimes hard to track the original owner.


Lori Parr said...

I'd just like to thank everyone (com mentors) for being sticklers, holding grammar pros to a tight reign. I started my day fielding hate mail from a gaggle of bloggers defending a well known blogger, to whom I wrote a comment regarding her list that started with 2 blatant typos; which I found inexcusable. If you write to make your world go 'round, then proof read before you push the publish button. I'm just learning, seeking the best info, and get disturbed when pro's mess up. It's what they do. Write. Write well!
Thank you for listening, and Thank You Purdue Owl!