Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Wood Writing Guide: Taming the Semicolon

I write for a living, and I make plenty of mistakes. Errors in fact, clarity, spelling, grammar, and punctuation appear with disturbing frequency in my writing, particularly in my early drafts. Revision and peer review reduce the number of those errors, but I have not managed to master the art of error-free writing just yet. The risk of embarrassing mistakes, like any risk, can be managed and reduced, but it can never be eliminated. So I shuffle along in my efforts as an academic and freelance writer, struggling to rid my work of typos as best I can.

I imagine there are plenty of people out there who, like me, want to improve their skills as writers. Perhaps if I focus my attention on commonly made errors that I see in my drafts, not to mention those drafts submitted by my students, I might make the world a slightly better place for writers and readers alike. To that end, this is the first of an occasional series of notes about commonly made errors in writing. The topic for today is a dangerous animal that should be handled with care and caution: the semicolon.

The semicolon should be safely caged unless you know exactly how to handle this beast. Among its many uses, this device helps to separate independent clauses. In other words, the semicolon serves as a partial stop between phrases that express a complete thought (typically because these phrases include a subject and verb). Here’s an example:
I carried a sandwich onto the bus; I was hungry.
Notice that you can replace the semicolon with a period with no error. The semicolon is acceptable if the second clause is related closely to the first clause, even though it could technically stand by itself. “I was hungry” helps explain why I carried the sandwich onto the bus; the appearance of a sandwich follows my state of hunger. By way of contrast, consider the following example:
I carried a sandwich onto the bus; being hungry.
I’m happy to note that my grammar-check caught that error even as I wrote it. “Being hungry” is not an independent clause; it is a fragment. Unless you’re discussing some obscure Zen riddle, the meaning of “being hungry” makes no sense without the context of the previous clause. To test that principle, walk up to a stranger and say only that clause, "being hungry." Will it make sense? If not, you're dealing with a fragment (and now a confused stranger). In this case, a comma should be used, not a semicolon. [Incidentally, Strunk and White remind us that commas may be used to separate independent clauses - as long as they are "short and alike in form." Example: "I came, I saw, I conquered."]

Other less exciting uses of the semicolon follow sets of comma pairs. When listing a set of comma pairs, such as Tallahassee, Florida, employ the semicolon. Doing so reduces the risk of reader confusion. Here’s an example:
There are three cities on our itinerary: Tallahassee, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina.
Are there more uses to the semicolon? Absolutely. But this brief note only covers a couple basic applications. Learn more by observing the semicolon in the wild. Approach it cautiously, observe its habits, and you’ll quickly tame the beast.


• I recently learned that semicolons can be used to separate independent clauses that appear to contradict each other. Previously, I would have tutted at that technique, but, as it turns out, you may employ semicolons to divide seemingly disparate ideas if you employ a conjunctive adverb (eg., "however" or "therefore" or "yet") to relate them. Thus, the following examples demonstrate correct semicolon use:
I drove the car home; however, home was not what I expected.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about semicolon use; yet, I was wrong.
If you'd like to learn more about this technique, here's a useful link: Semicolons with Conjunctive Adverbs.

• Marika Minehart sent me a New York Times article on semicolons in public spaces. Read the article: Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location.

• Paul Collins writes in Slate about the decline in semicolon usage: Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?

No comments: