Tag Archives: semicolons

Semicolons: Easy or Difficult?

I usually enjoy Mary Norris’s articles about language. She’s a former copyeditor for The New Yorker and a terrific writer–funny, readable, and informative.

But…yikes! Sometimes she goes overboard. Here are her thoughts about semicolons:

That is, commas, semicolons, and colons were plugged into a sentence in order to highlight, subordinate, or otherwise conduct its elements, connecting them syntactically. One of the rules is that, unless you are composing a list, a semicolon is supposed to be followed by a complete clause, capable of standing on its own….Sentence length has something to do with it—a long, complex sentence may benefit from a clarifying semicolon—but if a sentence scans without a semicolon it’s best to leave it alone.

Anyone reading that would decide that it’s best not to attempt  to use a semicolon at all – ever.

There’s an easier way. Just write two sentences. Change the first period to a semicolon. Lower-case the next word (unless it needs a capital letter). You’re done!

Tuesday is my birthday. I’m throwing a party.  CORRECT

Tuesday is my birthday; I’m throwing a party.  CORRECT

Some of my writer friends blanch when they hear this. They insist that you have to make semicolons difficult!

No, you don’t. So there!

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Semicolons

Semicolons are easy, and I always had fun teaching them.

I always began by handing out strips of paper and asking everyone to write a short, simple sentence. I put one on the board myself as an example: Mary heard the doorbell ring.

Then I asked everyone to write another sentence, equally short, related to the first one. Mine was She went to the door.

Then I put the two sentences together with a semicolon (and changed the capital letter):

Mary heard the doorbell rang; she went to the door.

Students inserted semicolons and shared the sentences they’d written. I summarized what they’d learned: A semicolon is like a period, but it’s followed by a lower-case letter.

And then I told them we were finished with semicolons.

Gasps from all corners of the room. It’s that easy? Well, yes.

Often someone would mumble something about “independent clauses,” and someone else would say that a teacher had told her that a semicolon is a substitute for “because,” and another student would about semicolons in lists. Sometimes a student would ask, with some indignation, why I had not emphasized that the two sentences joined by a semicolon had to be related to each other.

Shucks. Why make something simple sound so difficult?

I never talk about “independent clauses.” If I were teaching English majors, I would fine them a dollar every time they said “independent clause.” Stick to sentence – it’s a user-friendly word that’s much easier to understand.

The students who asked about semicolons in lists were making a good point. (Here’s an example: The following students won awards: Joe Smith, from Boston; Carol Jones, from Miami; and Richard Jenkins, from Chicago.)

But why complicate things while students were learning the basics of punctuation? If I insisted that they learn how to use commas in lists with parenthetical items, many students would be so intimidated that they’d never use a semicolon again.

Here’s what I used to tell students who asked about the requirement that sentences relate to each other. When, I asked, did you ever write a paragraph containing sentences that didn’t relate to each other? And the “because” requirement is just plain silly.

Use semicolons confidently, I would say (but sparingly – one per page is a good rule of thumb). If a teacher ever asked why you chose to put the semicolon in a particular place, say that you had a gut feeling. Or a vision. Or something. 

Semicolons are lovely punctuation marks; they add elegance to your writing. Don’t make them harder than they need to be.

It's that easy?

          It’s that easy?

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