lea schafer, freelance editor, romance editor, semicolon usage, rules for semicolons, self-editingYou don’t have to be afraid of this seemingly complicated bit of punctuation — and you don’t have to hate it either. Semicolons, like all punctuation, have their uses, and they’re probably not as complicated as you might think.

Chicago Manual of Style has specific rules regarding the semicolon: five entries, to be exact. But in reality, those five entries boil down to two uses for the semicolon. That’s right, TWO. Two can’t be that difficult to remember, people! And just so you have no excuses, I’m going to explain what those two uses are.

First, dividing independent clauses.

Sounds important, right? You’re probably sitting there thinking, What the heck is an independent clause? Really it’s just a fancy way of saying a complete sentence. A semicolon may be used between two complete sentences instead of a period. Why would you do this?

A semicolon is used when the two sentences are closely related. Here’s the example CMOS gives:

She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean; no mere water-resistant watch would do.

The first sentence explains the second; there’s a direct connection. She is in the water a lot, so her watch has to be more than simply water-resistant. Now, if the sentences were not connected, you would use a period (and most likely a new paragraph), like this:

She spent much of her free time immersed in the ocean. Her car is blue.

Does she use her car to drive to the ocean? Probably. But that connection isn’t made in these two sentences. They should be separate. Hence, the period.

Second, dividing elements in a complicated list.

Note the word “complicated.” When you go to the grocery store, you get ham, biscuits, and eggs. You don’t get ham; biscuits; and eggs. this is a simple list, straightforward, with nothing included that would confuse the reader. Now look at this sentence:

She had several things on her list to do today: run to the DMV, stand in line, and get her license renewed; spend two hours at the hairdresser having her hair washed, colored, and styled; and go by the grocery store to pick up ham, biscuits, and eggs.

Notice all the internal punctuation here? Each task on the list involves multiple steps. What if we used commas instead?

She had several things on her list to do today: run to the DMV, stand in line, and get her license renewed, spend two hours at the hairdresser having her hair washed, colored, and dried, and go by the grocery store to pick up ham, biscuits, and eggs.

Confusing? Yes. the semicolon makes clear what is involved in each stop, prevent us from thinking this person will be styled while going to the grocery store. The list is complicated, but with a semicolon, it can easily be made clear.

A word about dialogue.

I won’t get into the issues surrounding comma splices today (if you don’t know what that is, don’t worry; we’ll cover it another day — see how I did that semicolon thing? 🙂 ). However, semicolons are very useful in dialogue. Often writers feel it is more natural to run spoken sentences together, separating with just a comma, to make the dialogue sound more natural. The period gives a hard stop, so it sometimes feels too heavy for everyday dialogue. Here’s an example:

“No, I have cake. You keep your cookie.”

And with a comma:

“No, I have cake, you keep your cookie.”

This sentence could be seen as flowing well. The comma is incorrect, however, because “No, I have cake” is a complete sentence. Notice how closely related these two sentences are? What did we learn about that above? Yes, a semicolon works here, giving the more pause-like feeling of a comma, but still grammatically correct. See?

“No, I have cake; you keep your cookie.”

We don’t have the hard pause of a period, and we don’t have the incorrect comma. We have a compromise, and it works well. Try it the next time you don’t want a hard stop in your dialogue.

And that’s it, short and sweet! Not all punctuation has to give you headaches, least of all the lowly semicolon. The comma, on the other hand…

🙂

– Lea

*Photo courtesy of Memphis CVB

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s