Punctuation Tip: Using Semicolons Correctly

We have, in our punctuation help series, looked already at commas, colons, ellipsis, quotation marks, etc. Here, we will check out the uses of another punctuation mark, the semicolon (;), and check out how it differs from other matching punctuations, the period and the comma.

Introduction

Semicolon is used to introduce a pause, slightly longer than the comma. It's not, however, a replacement for comma. Semicolons are usually applied on two occasions: To separate related sentences (independent clauses) and as a replacement for comma in monster lists.

1. Separating Independent Clauses

Semicolons can be used a sentence separator. Independent clauses are independent sentences themselves; they have complete meaning. When writing two sentences, the usual separator is the period. However, you can use semicolon to replace this period, if the sentences are closely related. Look at the following sentence:

Jack Nicholson is a great actor; he secured the Oscar award thrice.


Here the part on either side of the semicolon is a complete sentence, and hence they can be separated using a period. But, these sentences are very much related that you can use a semicolon to separate them. So, in these sentences, a period or the semicolon is appropriate.

2. Separating Items in a Monster List

A monster list is any list of items, in which items themselves contain commas. In such cases, separating items with commas creates confusion. Look at the following sentence:

Mary, her husband, Jim Wordsmith, his wife, Alison, and her friend, Ben, were present at the party.

When you look at this sentence, can you make out the meaning? Impossible. Now, check out the rewritten sentence below:

Mary; her husband; Jim Wordsmith; his wife, Alison; and her friend, Ben were present at the party.

Now we know that Mary's husband is not named in the sentence; Alison is wife of Jim Wordsmith; and her friend is Ben.

When Comma is Inappropriate

The sentence mentioned above in monster list is one place for confusion, where writers may feel that a comma should be used, though it doesnt make sense.

1. The general rule to follow is whenever you encounter a list with any of the lists items itself contains a comma, the comma cannot be used to separate the whole list, and use semicolon instead.

2. Some writers tend to separate sentences, which are closely related, with commas. This causes a comma splice, which is grammatically incorrect. In such sentences, either follow the second sentence with an appropriate conjunction (and or but), or separate the sentences with a semicolon.

For instance:

Mary is wife of Martin, She is a teacher.

Rewrite to:

Mary is wife of Martin, and she is a teacher.
Or better:
Mary is wife of Martin; she is a teacher.

Conclusion

Using punctuation marks appropriately is essential in correct writing. You should read the other posts on punctuation, accessible from the category entry, Punctuation. Your comments are most welcome.

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Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

6 Opinions:

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    Debby

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nice tip on semicolons.

    Interesting blog too.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Debby, many thanks for your comment. And the link mentioned is really interesting.

    Lenin

    ReplyDelete
  4. Very nice site.

    But -- and sorry for the nitpicking bit given the nature of the site it seems best -- I think you should change "Its" into "it's" at the beginning of the second paragraph.

    P.S. Feel free to erase this post once you've fixed it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. @anonymous: It's been fixed. For sure this is a grammar and correct punctuation blog, but I have too little time to read and edit my own sentences, and that's why these errors pop up.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I am not an English native speaker and I like this pages because are simple to understand and very useful for my writing.

    ReplyDelete

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