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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Demystifying the Semicolon, Part 1

I think the semicolon might be the most misunderstood piece of punctuation in the English language.

I'll never forget a couple of years ago when an editor for one of the companies I was contracting for accidentally hit "Reply All" to an e-mail, effectively copying all of the ICs, and sent out a nasty comment about how the first thing he did when editing a transcript was to do a Find and Replace to remove all of the semicolons.

Unfortunately, while I was offended because I felt that it was an insult to those of us who do use semicolons correctly, I have seen many examples of this incorrect usage and can understand his frustrations as well.

Just as the key to eliminating run-on sentences is to identify independent or stand-alone clauses, identifying these is also key for proper semicolon usage.

The most basic usage of a semicolon is to join independent clauses in the absence of a conjunction. We use it when two sentences should be given equal weight and emphasis:

The dog was hungry. The cat was tired.

In this case, we could use a semicolon between the two sentences, changing the second "the" to lower case:

The dog was hungry; the cat was tired.

Additionally, semicolons can also be used when the second independent clause begins with a coordinating conjunction, such as however, otherwise, et cetera:

The dog was hungry; however, the cat was tired.

It's important to note that if there was a conjunction between these two sentences, a semicolon would NOT be used.


The dog was hungry; and the cat was tired.


The dog was hungry, and the cat was tired

More on the proper use of a semicolon to come!