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.
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 http://www.spreadshirt.co.uk/save-our-semi-colon-C4408A10321348 and http://fandom-grammar.livejournal.com/tag/usage:punctuation