My guest blogger this month is my son, Charles, to whom I gave his own page on this website. http://barbaraardinger.com/charles-ardinger/ . He’s an English teacher at Coastline Community College in Orange County, CA, where he’s taught classes on science fiction and Harry Potter. Mostly, however, he teaches pre-English 101 classes for students who aren’t quite ready for freshman comp. This is why he can speak and write so clearly and cogently about the esoterica of Gooder English.
Last Thanksgiving, while everyone else was eating dessert, he and I were both so stuffed full of turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and two or three veggies that we retired to my living room to chat. And of course our conversation wandered into English grammar. And semicolons. So when I asked him to write about semicolons, he was ready. Here you go—
“With great power comes great responsibility.” —Stan Lee
“Don’t stop ’til you get enough.” —Michael Jackson
As you look closely at the semicolon (;), you might notice that it looks like a period on top of a comma. That’s a clue; the semicolon does the work of both of those punctuation marks. Like a period, it tells a reader that a sentence is ending, but like a comma, it tells the reader to take a breath and move on to the next segment of meaning. It works as both a Stop sign and a Yield sign, and this combination gives it tremendous power to direct a reader’s attention through a sentence. Of course, this power can also make a semicolon dangerous; using a semicolon indiscriminately can damage a reader’s chance to understand your idea accurately. Recognizing the hybrid nature of a semicolon can help guide you in using it to inform and impress your readers.
First of all, remember that semicolons give sentences prestige mainly through their rarity. For many readers, a semicolon in a sentence makes that sentence seem somehow more erudite; a British accent has the same effect on many people. The semicolon signifies that the writer of the sentence has command of punctuation more complicated than the simple period or question mark. For that reason, you can use it to impress a reader with your knowledge. However, overuse of the semicolon, especially within a single sentence, can have the opposite effect. The temptation arises to show off; a writer might decide to construct a sentence with three or four clauses; such a sentence would have a large number of semicolons; indeed, the sentence might have so many semicolons that the writer of the sentence forgets where it began. Any reader would find that last sentence utterly exhausting. The overabundance of semicolons overwhelms the sentence’s meaning the way a floodlight makes fireworks into indistinct patterns of smoke. Notice also the way that sentence with all the semicolons seems to trail off. By the time you’ve gotten to the end of it, you can barely remember the beginning, so you probably read it again. That minor irritation you probably felt in having to do that doesn’t have to affect your reader if you remember to use caution and discretion with semicolons.
Also, that hybrid nature of the semicolon presents a temptation to use it as some other punctuation mark. Most commonly, inexperienced writers use it as a colon (:) in a sentence such as, “I bought everything I needed for dinner; steak, peas, and a fire extinguisher.” Because a reader expects a semicolon to join complete sentences, that last bit looks like a subject in search of a verb, and the reader expecting one will get confused. The same thing might happen when a reader sees a semicolon used as a comma. A semicolon can do the work of a comma when it’s in a list of complicated items whose description requires commas; we might speak of “the cousins, nephews, and nieces; our neighbors, who have become so close that we think of them as family; and, of course, the banker who owns our mortgage.” In that case, the semicolon helps comprehension of the list. On the other hand, the semicolons in a list like “apples; pears; nectarines; and gum” might give a reader hiccups. Semicolons do a particular job, and trying to make them do a different job won’t help a reader understand your idea.
For that reason, don’t forget what a semicolon is really saying to your reader. A semicolon tells a reader that the ideas it joins relate closely to each other, so closely that they belong in the same sentence. A sentence like, “Cheese is the best food; I eat some cheese every day” would probably not bother a reader because the two ideas it joins show a close and obvious relation. However, a sentence like, “Cheese is the best food; the cows much grass contentedly” could cause a reader’s head to explode. The ideas on either side of the semicolon differ wildly, so the message the semicolon sends about their close relation can lead the reader to look for a meaning that just isn’t there. A semicolon, by announcing that similarity of meaning, can give power to a sentence; at the same time, misuse of the semicolon’s power can damage a sentence irreparably.
Don’t fear the semicolon; as I’ve tried to show here, the benefits it can bring to a sentence just about match up to the dangers of its misuse. Try it in the next few sentences you write. As you gain confidence with this interesting punctuational hybrid, you’ll find yourself earning the good impression it brings as you compose sentences with greater balance and flair. With the warnings you’ve just read in mind, go forth; the semicolon stands ready to help you.