“Unconfusing” the Most Confusing Punctuation Mark of All: The Semicolon!

If you do not see the podcast player, click here to listen.

Fear struck Augustus McTavish beyond what he could recall. Yes, as a child he was frightened by seeing costumes on his first Halloween; he had almost stepped on a snake during a hike and that made his hair stand up; at his first horror movie Augustus had gripped the chair and sweated during some scary scenes; and he recalled how unnerved he was at picking up his date for the Senior Prom. Yet none of these could compare to what he was just told by his English professor: the assignment was to showcase an understanding of the punctuation marks: the period, the comma, the exclamation mark, the colon, and … the semicolon!  “Oh no,” thought Augustus, “not the semicolon! I could never understand it; surely I’ll fail this assignment!” Of course, there are easy remedies for this apprehension of using the semicolon. Probably the least understood of all the punctuation marks, its correct use will immediately enhance the sophistication of any writing.

This fear over the use of the semicolon is understandable. First, it’s a weird-looking punctuation mark, as if it couldn’t make up its mind if it wanted to be a period or a comma. Next, more often than not, when a student decides to take the plunge and use a semicolon in an assignment, too often a professor would indicate the semicolon was used incorrectly. Nothing makes a writer more hesitant – and fearful – of writing something than when a professor has deducted points for its wrong use. Lastly, its correct use in a sentence is somewhat complex, not an obvious period at the end of a sentence, a friendly apostrophe to show the possessive, or the always-needed comma that seems to fit with every natural pause in a sentence. Indeed, it does take a bit of focus to master the semicolon, and Augustus had yet to do so.

How could Augustus feel good about semicolon use? What would make Augustus treat the semicolon as a best friend? Well, he was not to be outdone by this semicolon – no way! He researched, including a visit to the PG Writing Center to take on this frustrating punctuation mark (Commas and Semicolons: login required) and the PG Library, where an easy-to-understand video on its use was found (Video — How to Use Semicolons: login required). He also asked his professor for help.

But just how did this unusual-looking punctuation mark get its start? Credit goes to an Italian printer named Aldus Manutius the Elder. He printed the first semicolon in 1496 after deciding on its use to connect two independent statements to form one sentence. In designing the semicolon, he knew the period would not work, as it marked the ending of a group of words – the sentence. Yet he also knew the meaning of the period was to stop, so somehow he felt that could be incorporated into this new mark. He then turned to the comma: although it indicated a pause in a sentence, its purpose was usually to join one independent and one dependent clause in a sentence. Still, he reasoned, it did mark a pause. He decided to combine the two marks, and thus the semicolon was born.

Of course, knowing the history did not help Augustus very much; he needed a sure-fire, always-will-be-correct, this-is-golden guide for correct semicolon use.  Rather than having to always look up the proper semicolon implementation in the PG Writing Center and constantly viewing the video found in the PG library, Augustus asked his professor for a suggestion. It was easy, Augustus was told: “Let’s take the best points of those two and my information, then make A Guide to Properly Using the Semicolon!”  

Augustus did just that, and for the first time, his guide is printed here, for all to use:

  • Use the semicolon to connect two independent clauses (an independent clause is a group of words that can stand by themselves as a sentence). Here is an example: “Jim’s most sought- after dessert recipe was his chocolate cake; it could always be counted on to please family and friends.”
  • When a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) is used with a comma to combine two independent clauses the semicolon can be used in place of the comma.  This is an example of going from a comma to a semicolon: COMMA — “Jim needed quiet time to work on his 10-page essay for class and told this to his 5-year-old daughter, Susie, but Susie was a precocious child who simply wanted to play with her dad”  becomes a semicolon —  “Jim needed quiet time to work on his 10-page essay for class and told this to his 5-year-old daughter, Susie; but Susie was  a precocious child who simply wanted to play with her dad.”
  • A semicolon can be used when the second independent clause in a sentence is introduced by an adverb or short phrase (such as in that case, as a result, thus, however, indeed, that is, on the other hand, for example). This is a good look: “Jim was upset and somewhat flustered by his daughter wanting constant attention while he worked on the essay; however, he would always take the time to play with Susie, so he took a break from writing.”
  • A semicolon can be introduced before introductory expressions (examples: namely, that is, for example) in place of a colon, comma, dash, or parenthesis. An example: “Going back to writing his essay, Jim felt his daughter had something to add; namely, Susie called her dad’s writing scribbling, and so Jim named his essay ‘Finding Time to Scribble an Essay: A Treatise on Time Management.’”
  • Semicolons should be used to separate items in a series where one or more of the items has a comma. This showcases the point:  Jim’s essay met the directions: 10 pages, with APA formatting;  four researched sources, three of them from the PG library; and a timely topic, with real-life examples to showcase it.”

As for Augustus, using this guide melted away his fear like warm butter! He plunged into his professor’s assignment with confidence, knowing he could easily showcase his fine knowledge of the semicolon’s placement. The ending of his essay was a wink to his professor: “By the way, Dr. Zinner, the semicolon and I had lunch the other day; it was a most enjoyable repast, and the semicolon and I are becoming BFF!”

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: