September 24th, 2009

To the semi-colon, a respectful love note

The Rose-coloured Mafia has become aware (thank you, Mark!) that today is National Punctuation Day! When asked what my favourite punctuation is (yes, this is what authors talk about…some authors), I would have to say nervously, the semi-colon.

“Nervously” because the semi-c is a notoriously “advanced” bit of punctuation, one I’ve only learned to use properly (I hope) in the past few years. It’s got subtly and gradations, nuance and force. Let me explain.

Usage 1: to divide items in a list when there are commas (or conjunctions) within the individual list items. Confused already? I understand. Ok:

As we all know, if you have more than two simple things you are listing in a sentence, you mark them off with commas (eg., “The period, exclamation point, and question mark are all terminal punctuation.”) [Note: the comma before the “and” is optional, but that’s another post.] But if they are items that themselves contain lists, a reader might get confused, so you use commas for the lists internal to the items, and semi-colons for the larger list (eg., “My favourite suppers are mac and cheese; tomato, ham, and swiss omelettes; and turkey, bacon, and avocado sandwiches).

Usage 2: to link two independent clauses and imply the relationship between them. Independent clauses are clauses that *could* stand alone as sentences, but they don’t have to. For example, “Philip is married to Nina. I hate Nina.” is just an enumeration of facts, some of them unhappy. But, “Philip is married to Nina; I hate Nina,” implies that their is a causal link between these two facts–perhaps I hate Nina because she is married to Philip. Perhaps I love Philip. Perhaps inherent in this grammatical example is a great novel.

The relationship has to be pretty obvious and self-contained for the semi-colon to make sense. You can’t just match up any two sentences and sometime later explain the link: “Philip is married to Nina; I like pie” is a bad semi-colon use, even if it comes out 30 pages later that I am planning to murder Nina with a poison pie…

Usage 3: to link two independent clauses if a transition is used between them. Transition words–properly called “conjunctive adverbs” for reasons that are a little confusing–are ones like however, therefore, moreover. These words make the link between clauses explicit, yet because they are not conjunctions we still need that semi-c. For example, “Nina is devouring the pie; therefore, she’ll soon be dead.”


Something I tried and tried to tell the first-year Effective Writing students I TA’d for is that a full life–and deathless prose–can be lived WITHOUT the semicolon. Yes, it adds nuance to a sentence, but only if you use it properly; otherwise, it looks stupid, same as any other error. This is higher-end punctuation, but only in the sense that unlike the comma and the period, you don’t *have* to use it, and probably will only really need it for complicated ideas. But it doesn’t *make* an idea complicated. There no such thing, really as a 50-cent word, or 50-cent punctuation: there’s just 50-cent ideas and the best way for an individual author to express them. But my students kept sticking semi-colons in after “and” anyway.

Up in the club

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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