Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Grammar Check - The Semicolon

This month's Grammar Check deals with a subject near and dear to my heart: the semicolon. The semicolon is that funny looking little colon-comma that seems to terrify people with its mere presence. In its wake it leaves confusion or sometimes even derision. I had someone once tell me that the only people who use semicolons are snobs.

Well, if that's true, call me Madam Snob because I love the semicolon. It's the perfect punctuation to properly articulate how I think--in run-on sentences with too-brief pauses between thoughts. And that's what a semicolon is made for (shh, ignore the fact that I just ended a sentence with a preposition during a grammar lecture).

To put it more clearly, the semicolon separates two complete clauses with a pause that's shorter than a period.

A clause is another word for a sentence. A complete clause has a subject and a verb. So another way to think of this is that a semicolon can always be replaced by a period. The pause between the sentences would be longer, so they might not sound exactly the same as they do in your head, but you'll be grammatically clear.

The semicolon cannot be replaced by the comma in this instance. Ever.

Here are a few examples:

    Moira ran to the store; she was out of milk.
    Moira ran to the store. She was out of milk.
    Moira ran to the store, she was out of milk.

There is a time when you use the semicolon to replace a comma, but it very specifically relates to lists. Normally, when you have a list of items in the same sentence, you separate them with commas: I'm going to help my mother, my brother, and my uncle. But occasionally you need to use a comma within that list. Instead of creating confusion by throwing extra commas around, some get replaced by semicolons: I'm going to help my mother, Tanya; my brother, Stu; and my uncle, Rodrigo.

When you're deciding whether or not to use a semicolon, think about how you want the sentence to sound. There's music to the written word. Should there be a long pause, a period or ellipsis, to create drama and tension? Should the sentences tumble quickly, tied together with commas and semicolons, to build the pace? Does your character blather on without pausing for rest? Semicolons are there to help you keep your sentences from becoming too muddled and hard to read in those moments.

If there are any topics you want me to cover in this series, leave me a comment or email me at tobisummers@writeme.com.


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