Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Elegant Semicolon

Despite the fact that I have an MA in English and have taught English for going on three years now, I have a sordid and disgraceful history when it comes to punctuation and grammar. Well, not really sordid.

I was pretty awesome with punctuation until the third grade when some teacher told me that the way to know if you need a comma or not is to read the sentence and wherever you stop to take a breath-- that's where you put the comma. I tried this out and got a paper back full of red marks. It turns out that I breathe differently than my teacher.

So, that's when I gave up on punctuation, especially commas (those little devils). I just put punctuation wherever I felt like it. Sometimes my teachers would circle my mistakes and sometimes they didn't care, but either way I still got pretty good grades on my papers so I figured it didn't matter.

Confession: I did not learn how to use commas until after I got my undergraduate degree (with a minor in English)and had already taught one semester of college level English which included a unit on punctuation.

After an pretty stressful class period where I may have made up some fake punctuation rules, I decided that I had a moral obligation to learn the truth.

I audited an editing class and met frequently with the teacher. Now I am proud to say that I know a billion rules about commas (but they are still tricky little devils and I am not always sure about them...even with all the rules). Also I have been freed from the shackles of ignorance and enjoy using many different punctuation marks including the much ignored semicolon.

Perhaps you are already comfortable with our friend the semicolon. I, on the other hand, had never used the semicolon before because it turns out you don't need to. You can go your whole life and never use one.

But here is my argument: You should use them. They are awesome. The semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark because it is so pretty. Not stuffy like the colon. Not boring like the period. It's fancy but with a little sly curl at the end. Take a look.

Nice, eh?

Also it is super easy to use. You can only use it two ways:

1.(And this is the most common one) To link two complete sentences that are related to each other

Take a look at these examples supplied by Debbie Harrison, my grammar and punctuation mentor and hero:

The boys mowed and edged the lawn; the girls weeded and planted flowers.

Susan cooks all the meals; Rachel does all the dishes.

I love to eat out for dinner; however, I can’t afford to do it very often because it is so expensive.

The use of the semicolon before "however" followed by a comma is the classic place to use a semicolon. If you don't know when to use a semicolon, use it there.

You may notice that in all the examples it would be absolutely correct to use a period to separate the two sentences. That's the beauty of a semicolon. That's why they are so easy. If two sentences are related at all in meaning you can kick out that period and stick in the much more elegant semicolon. By the way, it makes you look smarter; only class people use semicolons.

On to the second rule. It doesn't come up as much, but it made me feel really cool the first time I used it.

2. To link word groups together when each word group already contains commas or other punctuation such that the groupings could become confusing.

For lunch we had soup, the gourmet kind; sandwiches, the hoagie kind; and salad, the healthy kind.

The officers are Mary Boyce, president; John Kelly, vice-president; Marjorie Withers, Secretary; Ken Smoot, treasurer.

And that's it. So easy. I challenge everyone who reads this to integrate a semicolon into their next blog posting or into a comment on my blog (also, you have to attempt to use it correctly,and an emoticon is not -as of yet- acknowledged as a correct use of a semicolon).

The end.

p.s. I want you to know that I am not a punctuation snob. I usually have to force myself to notice my students' punctuation mistakes when I grade papers. I am not very careful proofreading my own work unless a grade or job depends on it. But I very much like knowing the rules so I can use them if I want. It's kind of like how it's important to know the commandments so you can pick and choose which ones to obey.


Nathan said...

I personally think that the comma is my favorite punctuation. I think I over use it; however, I know how and when to use it though. I also like exclamation points!

Robinsonfamily said...

Anna I just want you to know that I am a better person now that I have read your blog. I was in the dark about semicolons; now I feel free and enlightened. Thanks Anna.

Lisa Lou said...

I know Debbie Harrison; she taught the reading comprehension in my GRE class. She's a great teacher; however, I did really bad on that section on the fake test.

Bridget said...

So enlightening! I like the semi-colon too, but can you do a future entry on the colon (the punctuation kind)? Some of us (JEREMY!!!!!!) get those two mixed up sometimes.

Bryan Lewis said...

I once wrote a seven verse song about comma-splices for my freshman English class; it was a hit with the ladies.