Project Semicolon

Project Semicolon is a suicide prevention organization that is saving lives:

A message about preventing suicide

I applaud this compassionate group!

I hope they (and you!) won’t mind if I use their lifesaving message as a springboard to talk about two important usage issues.

1.  This isn’t quite how authors use semicolons. I’ve known students (and – sigh – a few professional writers!) who think a semicolon is a cure for a long sentence. You get out a ruler, find the midpoint, and stick a semicolon there. Problem solved!

Nope. A semicolon is like a period. Here’s what you do: find two sentences that go together. Change the period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter (unless the word requires a capital letter – Jane, October, Delaware).

Linda is excited about her new car. She invited all of us to go for a drive yesterday.  CORRECT

Linda is excited about her new car; she invited all of us to go for a drive yesterday.  CORRECT

2. Sticklers may have had a mild heart attack when they saw “could’ve chosen to end their life.” I – myself – have written two textbooks telling students to use his or her in this context. When you use they for one person – “an author could have chosen to end their sentence” – you’re committing a usage error called the “singular they.” At least that’s what students have been told for the past 200+ years.

That rule is starting to fall by the wayside, and many people – including me! – couldn’t be happier about it. I would leave “chosen to end their sentence” just the way it is. You can read more about the demise of the singular “they” here.

A word cloud about compassion

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2 thoughts on “Project Semicolon

  1. Darrell Turner

    Jean, another way to avoid the subject-pronoun problem is to eliminate the pronoun when possible. That could have been done in this case, writing the sentence this way: “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end a sentence, but chose not to.”

    Another nit to pick is the questionable use of the comma before the word “but,” because “but” is not functioning as a coordinating conjunction in this sentence.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Right on both counts! But I would be tempted to leave that comma before “but” – it makes the sentence more readable. (I’d defend my decision by calling “but chose not” to an interrupter. Worth a try!) Your elegant solution to the “singular they” problem is one I’ve used myself many times – and taught students to do. But at this point in my life I’m not doing any more contortions to avoid the singular “they.” I always enjoy hearing from you, Darrell – thanks!

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