Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Time for some GRAMMAR!

This one is going out to all of you writers that seem to think the semicolon is the worst punctuation mark out there.

First of all, I am very much aware that the publishing world shys away from these little beauties. I do think the reason stems around the "readability level" of the material going to print. Remember that when calculating the readability level of a text, one element is the length of the sentence and, obviously, using a semi-colon will create longer sentences. Still there is a great power in this punctuation mark.

Let's start first with the definition. According to Diana Hacker (2007) "The semicolon is used to connect major sentence elements of equal grammatical rank." In other words, if you have two sentences, or equal strength, but kept separate are weaker, you would want to find a way to bring these together with a semicolon. This also adds an element of increased fluency to the sentence. Instead of two short choppy sentences, grammatically, you can blend the two together with the semicolon.

Now, there are three rules for using a semicolon...

RULE #1 Combining two sentences together and using a transitional expression to connect the two. These transitional expressions may be words such as anyway, however, specifically, and so forth. You might also use phrases such as: at the same time, as a result and so on.

In this case, you would start with sentence #1, add a semicolon, add that transitional phrase and then follow it up with a second sentence.

Niles relished the thought of being in complete command of his business; however, he far from relished the thought of being commanded by a woman, especailly Claudia.

In this case, both of the sentences tell something about Niles but become stronger because it shows the internal struggle he was facing.

RULE #2: This is the same as #1 but we eliminate the transitional expression. For many of you, I find authors using a hyphen instead.

Niles relished the thought of being in complete command of his business; he far from relished the thought of being commanded by a woman, especailly Claudia.

In this case, we get that same struggle, but the tension of the situation he has with Claudia becomes even stronger.

RULE #3: This one you may not use in writing but I figured I would cover it anway. In this case, you "use a semicolon between items in a series containing internal punctuation" (Hacker, 2007). In this case, when you have a list of items that you would normally separate with a comma, but one, or more of those items contains commas, you would use a semicolon to break up the list to prevent confusion.

Here is the example from Hacker:

Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock and his large pointed ears; Battlestar Galactica with its Cylon raiders; and Star Wars with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vadar.

Now you know and now you don't have to be afraid.



  1. Scott...I'm a proponent of the semi-colon because I'm old school. Where I use the semi-colon and am not sure of its use is when I join the first complete sentence to the second expansion of the thought without a verb. Since you didn't mention it, is this incorrect?

  2. BarbW - Your use is INCORRECT! You must have two complete independent clauses on either side of the semicolon. The second part of your sentence is a fragment.

    Remember, a complete sentence must contain a subject and predicate.

    In this case, you should simply use a hypen.


  3. Thank you. Guess I need a refresher course in grammar. Although I was an executive secretary and good with these things, I've found novel writing a whole different ballgame.

  4. Thanks, Scott! I had a history prof in university that was an ex-newspaper editor in chief. He threatened us all with an automatic F if he found a semicolon in any of our papers, because he insisted no one ever used them correctly. I've been kind of afraid of them ever sincce.

  5. BarbW - No problem. That's what I'm here for.

    Kaylea - Never be afraid of punctuation. The key is to learn and move on!

  6. May I intrude here? Scott mentions a hyphen between a phrase with a verb and one without. I'm sure he means an em-dash, signified in a Word doc by two hyphens with a space on either side that the typesetter will convert into an em-dash in line with the publisher's stylesheet. These em-dashes are powerful and are often used in place of semi-colons. Both work, when used correctly;

    Just so you know, I'm a book designer and typesetter (and author) and I've been in this business for 30 years.

  7. Maggie, you are correct, I was referring to the em-dash. Just wanted to keep things simple and focus on the semicolon for the day!
    Thanks for the input though!