Thursday, March 4, 2010

Perfect Punctuation: The Simple Semicolon

I Googled "punctuation kitten," and this came up.

We don't see a whole lot of semicolons these days, and there's a reason for that. Frankly, it doesn't have too many uses. On the much touted OWL site, we cannot even find a section for the semicolon! We do see some clues in the section entitled "Sentence Punctuation Patterns":
Independent clause [ ; ] independent clause [ . ]
And here:
Independent clause [ ; ] independent marker [ , ] independent clause [ . ]
This is the first basic use of the semicolon: a fast period. I call it fast because readers typically read semicolons as quickly as commas, but know that they have the same power as a period (they can separate two complete sentences). For instance:
James likes to write poetry. His work tends to really annoy me.
Would be read more quickly and rapid-fire with a semicolon:
James likes to write poetry; his work tends to really annoy me.
If we're feeling frisky, we can throw that independent marker in there:
James likes to write poetry; however, his work tends to really annoy me.
The second significant use for the semicolon is as a super comma! Sometimes our sentences get gummed up with all sorts of clauses and commas, so a semicolon can help us separate items in a big list, or keep separate complex independent clauses. Here's the big list use:
I have seen the Cubs, Rays, Braves, and Angels play baseball; the Colts, Jaguars, and Bears play football; and the Bulls, Rockets, and Nets play basketball.
...and here's an example of two super clauses:
I used to live, before moving here, in Florida, where it was either raining hard or not at all; but then I moved to Chicago, where rain seems to sneak in and out of town over the course of 48 hours.
Few people misuse the semicolon; it's kind of beautiful like that. Still, I think more writers could use more semicolons (or mystical em-dashes) to help break up their writing and make it more readable. So, next time we write something, let's ask ourselves: "Does this need our friend, the simple semicolon?"

Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats.

No comments:

Post a Comment