Punctuation: A Writer’s Worst Enemy — Semicolons


It has come to my attention that one of the things I should really address in my blog is punctuation. I was recently reading work from a lady in my lit. class and it occurred to me that the semicolon is the most misrepresented punctuation there is. George Orwell once shunned it because he considered it an arcane piece of the English language. To some extent we would have to agree with him because it is a rather old and rarely used item. There is good reason for its lack of use: people generally don’t know how to use it.

A semicolon is, in some ways, a super comma. Unlike the comma, however, you must have two independent clauses. What is this bit about clauses? A clause, to put it simply, is a sentence that contains a subject and a verb. An independent clause is a sentence that is a complete thought. A dependent clause is one that does not complete a thought and requires additional information to do so.  Example:

Fighting in the old restaurant = Dependent
They were fighting in the old restaurant = Independent

Notice the difference?

Now, in regards to semicolons, you need two independent clauses. You can’t say:  

She was a happy girl; smiling all the time.

That makes no sense because the first part is independent, but the second is dependent. It requires additional information to make it a complete sentence. The following would be correct:

She was a happy girl; she smiled all the time.

Two complete clauses (sentences).  Generally speaking you always want the two clauses around the semicolon to be related. Notice how the above example has a happy girl who smiles. Both are related to her happiness. Sometimes you can get away with it, but for the most part you should stick to having the sentences stick together. Besides, if you have a sentence that is unrelated it probably should be on its own somewhere anymore.

Just remember this the next time you want to use the semicolon. It can be your friend if you use it correctly; it can also be your greatest enemy. If you use it poorly it is a sure fire way to end up in that slush pile or in the garbage can. Editors generally do not like flashy punctuation; semicolons can be seen this way if you use them a lot. It’s a clear warning when your use of the semicolon is incorrect that you are not developed enough in your writing for publication.  I personally love the semicolon. It’s a cool piece of punctuation I think.

So, that’s that!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

5 thoughts on “Punctuation: A Writer’s Worst Enemy — Semicolons

  1. I bought the penguin book of punctuation a couple of years ago and have studied if from cover to cover, front to back, back to front, upside down and sideways, and now believe I have a good understanding of punctuation. Of course putting this understanding into practice is another matter entirely 🙁

  2. Practice makes perfect. One of the best books every write should have is Strunk & Whites Elements of Style. Sort of a tiny little mini dictionary that helps with grammar questions, punctuation, etc. Invaluable tool. I bought an older edition for about ten cents. I imagine you all could find it cheap too.

    And do you mean the dash or the hyphen? Dash is two hyphen’s (–), the hyphen is one, well, mark? (-). It’s also somewhat of a super comma:
    “George was a powerful man of fifty–tall, bulky, and altogether an Arnold impersonator.”
    Hyphens are more for tacking on pieces to a word: re-edit, etc.
    I forget the exact grammatical terms for it though :S. *researches*

    I love the semicolon nonetheless and the dash. I learned the dash from reading old scifi short stories lol. I got the semicolon from…well I don’t know where I got that from to be honest.

  3. Got it. I use Strunk almost as much as the punctuation book, but you’re right I just need a little more practice. What makes it tricky is I’m an Englishman living in Australia writing stuff that often gets subbed to the States. Three slightly different grammar systems make it easy to get confused from time to time.

  4. You can read Strunk and White online … but I’d rather have a book. I must go out and find one!

    And I meant the hyphen–the dash is a favourite too, but it’s not as ill-used as the poor old hyphen!

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