Semicolons in a List

I used to teach a remedial English course that ended with a pass-fail final exam: Students submitted an essay to a committee, which decided which students could proceed to Composition I.

I was present at one of those grading sessions when a carelessly written essay (from one of my students – sigh) caused some controversy. Two committee members gave it a thumbs-down, but a third member asked them to reconsider. “This student used a semicolon correctly,” he said. “Doesn’t that indicate real writing skill?”

I held my breath as the paper was reread. (Instructors weren’t supposed to comment about their own students.) There was a whispered conference – and then the committee chair said “Pass!” and put a blue checkmark on the paper.

How did a remedial English student manage to use a semicolon correctly? The answer is that all my students learned how to use semicolons the first day of class – and they were required to use one on every assignment. It was a good motivational tool for students who thought English usage was a mystery they’d never crack…and good insurance for that scary final exam.

Here’s what I told students to do: Write two sentences. Change the first period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter. And I would add: “You now have a master’s degree in semicolons.” (If you, reading this, want a Ph.D. in semicolons, we’ll get there in a moment.)

So you could insert a semicolon after one of the sentences in the paragraph above:

Write two sentences; change the first period to a semicolon, and lower-case the next letter. CORRECT

But don’t the two sentences need a connection? Yes, they do – but it doesn’t have to be something mystical or complicated. Almost everything we write – even a jokey email – has a string of connected sentences.

Compare my common-sense approach to semicolons with this explanation that I just found on a university website:

Semicolons help you connect closely related ideas when a style mark stronger than a comma is needed.

“A style mark stronger than a comma” – does anyone (besides the person who wrote that) know what it means? How on earth could you apply such a vague explanation?

Here’s another favorite:

Link two independent clauses to connect closely related ideas.

If you, reading this, are an English teacher, I submit this challenge to you: Hand out strips of paper and ask your students to write an independent clause. I guarantee that most students will just stare at you blankly. Yes, they always listen politely when we ramble on about independent clauses. But many of them don’t understand what that we’re talking about.

OK. End of rant. Let me help you get that Ph.D. in semicolons. Here’s what you need to know: Semicolons are required with a special kind of list – one with at least one item containing a comma.

Invited speakers include Jimmy Thompson, a Little League coach; Dr. Winnie Goldblatt, a pediatrician; The Reverend Susan Sanchez, a youth minister; and Lionel Fordham, an elementary school principal.  CORRECT

I wish I could reach out across the miles, hand you your sheepskin, and shake your hand. Congratulations!



4 thoughts on “Semicolons in a List

  1. AvatarKelly Pomeroy

    I think I know what the author of the “stronger than a comma” had in mind. I believe that usually a comma – or lack thereof – can be heard. A falling tone and a slight pause generally signal a comma. But if you want a stronger break – like the longer pause that would signal the end of a sentence – a semicolon can be substituted.

    But you can look at it from the other direction as well. It’s like a period when you want something weaker. The auditory cues may be the same as for a sentence break, but the driving consideration is a semantic one. The content of the two potential sentences is so closely linked that you want to bind the pair more closely.

    It’s subtle… 🙂

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    Yes, it’s subtle! And I agree with you. I’n fact I’ve always punctuated by the sound of the sentence and never had any problems with that method. But then I started teaching, and I saw how befuddled many of my students were. I think voracious readers have a huge advantage. I had to learn punctuation rules when I started teaching so that I could give students who didn’t like to read something concrete to hold on to. And then I got fed up with the jargon and developed my own system.

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