Monday, November 24, 2014

The Mystery of the Semicolon.

Once upon a time there was a poor, misunderstood punctuation mark: the semicolon. Not quite a colon, not quite a comma, the deprived little mark lived a life of obscurity and incorrect usage.

But it doesn't have to be that way; even you can learn to use the semicolon correctly. Because for about 99% of the time you'll use it, it's very easy.

A semicolon separates two complete sentences that are closely related. The key word there is "complete." If you can't put a period in place of the semicolon, you are using it incorrectly. For example:

"It look like it's going to snow; I think I'll put my snow tires on."

"It looks like it's going to snow; snow tire time."

(As you can see, "snow tire time" is not a complete sentence. In that case I would put either a colon (:) or an emdash.)

We could write the first sentence as two sentences: "It look like it's going to snow. I think I'll put my snow tires on." So that means using a semicolon is correct, assuming the sentences are related. For example:

"There's a great movie on TV tonight; it looks like a good night to stay home."

"There's a great movie on TV tonight; my house is blue."

In the second case, the sentences are not closely related so a semicolon would not be appropriate. Now there are no hard-and-fast rules on what is closely related so use your best judgement. Usually, if the second sentence completes the thought, that's the time to use the semicolon.

Also note, after the semicolon you do not capitalize the first word as you would if they were two separate sentences (unless you would capitalize it anyway as proper noun or pronoun).

There is one other use for the semicolon and it has to do with long lists in one sentence. But as a fiction writer you are unlikely to run across that need.

And with just a little care, you too can help the little semicolon out of obscurity and use it correctly.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, which I could have done with last week when I was giving myself an online grammar lesson on this very subject! Now that I've swotted up, it seems easy, but I was badly misusing it prior to that, in spite of writing for years.