Filed under: Being Awesome, Grammar, Semicolon | Tags: grammar, grammar rules, semicolon, writing
Semicolons are a mystery to many, so they use them for one reason and one reason only: winking online.
To these dysgrammatophobic individuals, the semicolon is a strange comma-colon hybrid, and you know what they say about things that are different: run away from them. As quickly as possible.* So, instead of learning about the semicolon, they hate it. “Damn you, semicolon!” they scream, sobbing throughout the night.
Stop that crying. Katrina’s here to make all your semicolon nightmares go away.
Let’s put it in simple language, shall we? How in holy hell is the semicolon supposed to be used?
With Independent Clauses
An independent clause is a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence. A dependent clause is the opposite: a group of words that, if standing alone, wouldn’t form a complete sentence.
Where semicolons are concerned, independent clauses rock. Because otherwise, the poor semicolon would be doomed to being part of a winky-face forever.
The most common way you’ll see semicolons used (assuming you read books, articles, essays, etc.) is like this:
Independent Clause ; Independent Clause
But dependent clauses? Nope – you can’t put two dependent clauses together with a semicolon. You can’t even put a dependent clause and an independent clause together with a semicolon. Punctuation can only do so much.
But there’s a catch: the above formula only works if the two independent clauses are closely related.
A good example would be:
But the following are incorrect:
- Your dad killed the werewolf; his tee time is two in the afternoon.
- Your father murdered the werewolf neighbor; thinking about unicorns.
I’ll try to be cheerier for the next examples, but I make no promises.
In a List
This one has a big rule: only use semicolons to create a list if there’s other complex punctuation within that list. Most of the time, that complex punctuation will be the comma.
Introductory Phrase: Thing with Complex Punctuation; Thing; and Thing.
Here’s a good example:
Questions? No? Good. Moving on.
With Conjunctive Adverbs/Transitional Phrases
Don’t let the jargon freak you out. It’s really pretty simple.
Independent Clause; Conjuctive Adverb or Transitional Phrase, Rest of sentence.
Conjunctive adverbs are words like “otherwise,” “however,” or “therefore.” So an example of using a semicolon with a conjunctive adverb is:
Transitional phrases include “for example,” “in other words,” and “on the other hand.” Here’s an example using a semicolon and a transitional phrase:
Not so scary, right? (I’m referring to the semicolon, of course–not to the doll above.)
Most of the time, you won’t use semicolons with coordinating conjunctions such as “and,” “but,” or “for.”
However, you can use a semicolon rather than break the sentence into two if what’s before or after the coordinating conjunction includes complex punctuation.
No clue what I mean? Here’s an example:
Having a hard time keeping the conjunctive adverbs, transitional phrases, and coordinating conjunctions straight? Grammar Girl has us covered with a list of the most commonly used words/phrases of each type.
So it’s not all that terrible, right? Love the semicolon instead of fearing it. And use it. I would hate for the semicolon to go extinct (I love it almost as much as the oxford comma).
Want to see more examples of correct semicolon use, with pictures? Guaranteed to make you laugh? Then head over to one of my favorite places in cyberspace: The Oatmeal.
I can’t talk about semicolons without mentioning Project Semicolon, which is pretty damned amazing. So please check it out.
Until next time.