I remember a radio commercial that featured an asterisk salesman. I don’t remember the company that was advertising, but this salesman was trying to sell asterisks to use in its warranty to bury lots of exceptions where no one would look. The advertiser refused, of course, and the salesman complained, “If I don’t make this sale, I’ll get demoted to semicolons.”
When I was learning to type, I wondered why I had to shift to get colons, which I use a lot more than semicolons. Maybe back in the dark ages, when our beloved QWERTY keyboard was laid out, people used semicolons a lot more than we do now.
Today, semicolons have two main uses
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Semicolons separate independent clauses
An independent clause can stand on its own. Most of the sentences I have used so far consist of a single independent clause. I see that the second paragraph has two sentences with the only two dependent clauses I have used. Here they are, with the second shortened for clarity:
- When I was learning to type.
- Maybe . . . when our . . . keyboard was laid out.
Don’t the periods look strange there? Those clauses have you waiting for what follows, which, by the way, is an independent clause. By definition, a dependent clause cannot stand on its own. I very properly used a comma to separate the dependent from the independent clause.
Here are two earlier sentences with two independent clauses
- I don’t remember the company that was advertising, but this salesman was trying to sell . . . .
- The advertiser refused, of course, and the salesman complained, . . . .
In both cases, the two clauses are again separated by commas. In the first, it’s because the independent clause is introduced by the conjunction “but.” In the second, the comma is only needed because of the parenthetical “of course.” Let’s take it out. Then the sentence will perfectly illustrate when to use a semicolon.
The advertiser refused, and the salesman complained.
Before the conjunction “and,” the comma is not strictly necessary with such short clauses. If the sentence did not contain a conjunction, the comma would not be the correct separator for the two clauses. We must either use a semicolon or divide the clauses into two different sentences.
The advertiser refused; the salesman complained.
The advertiser refused. The salesman complained.
Whether to write two sentences or use a semicolon probably doesn’t matter much. In this case, two consecutive three-word sentences might seem choppy, but I suppose most people nowadays would choose that form anyway.
Semicolons are much more useful in longer, more complicated sentences. I remember one assigned reading when I was in college; a single sentence took more than a quarter of the page! The whole book was full of sesquipedalian (foot and a half long) monstrosities.
For the first time in my life I was grateful to my seventh-grade English teacher for making us learn to diagram sentences. Otherwise I never would have deciphered the book on which the entire course depended. If that author hadn’t used semicolons, I would have lost all hope even with my excellent diagramming skills.
For the past hundred years or so, most writers have followed a trend toward shorter sentences and generally less formality in writing. As a result, semicolons have become increasingly rare. Good writers need to know how to use them, if only to recognize where a comma would be wrong.
Semicolons uncomplicate some series
We usually separate items in a list with commas. For example, I have lived in several states: Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, California, Illinois, and North Carolina.
Suppose I listed all the cities. I would have to separate the city from the state with a comma. Each item in the series, then, would include a comma. If I separated comma-containing items with a comma, after a while the list would become unintelligible.
The four blog that make the core of All-Purpose Guru are Grace and Judgment; Musicology for Everyone; Reading, Writing, Research; and Sustainable Future, Green Homes. I invite you to do two things with that list.
First, mentally replace all the semicolons with commas. Could you possibly figure out the names of the blogs if I had written it that way?
Second, if you enjoyed this post, check out the other blogs. They’re good, too.
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